MORNING RUN

Consumers are making fewer stops at the breakfast table on their way out the door each morning, so retailers and manufacturers are thinking up new ways to make the meal a portable convenience.Food bars, cereal in single-serve pouches, and handheld frozen sandwiches are among the items designed to encourage consumers to eat in the morning, regardless of their ability to stop and sit down."Manufacturers

Consumers are making fewer stops at the breakfast table on their way out the door each morning, so retailers and manufacturers are thinking up new ways to make the meal a portable convenience.

Food bars, cereal in single-serve pouches, and handheld frozen sandwiches are among the items designed to encourage consumers to eat in the morning, regardless of their ability to stop and sit down.

"Manufacturers are doing everything possible to make it easier for consumers to eat breakfast," said Mark Clements, grocery buyer, Clements' Marketplace, Portsmouth, R.I.

Making an entire meal convenient and portable is no easy task. Last year, about 6% of all morning meals were eaten on the run, up from 3% in 1990, according to NPD Group, Port Washington, N.Y., a provider of sales and marketing information. Furthermore, about 13% of all breakfasts are skipped completely.

"More and more people are eating breakfast on the go or at their desks," noted Lynn Dornblaser, director of consulting services, global new products database, Mintel International Group, Chicago, a consulting and research company.

Although ready-to-eat boxed cereal takes up the bulk of the breakfast category, sales are flat or marginally better. Forward-thinking retailers are making room for options.

"There's been a lot more ready-to-go, individually packed items available," observed Parrish Placencia, category manager, Andronico's, Albany, Calif.

One such fast-moving item at Andronico's is Quaker Oatmeal Breakfast Squares, according to Placencia. The hand-size squares are made of whole-grain rolled oats. They provide 20% of the daily value for calcium, vitamin A, iron, folic acid and vitamin B6, and 10% of the daily value for fiber and vitamin E -- much like a bowl of cereal.

"While times have changed, people are still looking for a breakfast choice that is filling, portable and they can feel good about from a health perspective," Dave Kimbell, manager, Quaker Oatmeal Breakfast Squares, said in a statement. Chicago-based Quaker is a unit of PepsiCo.

Indeed, many consumers view products like these as healthier than other portable breakfast options, Placencia said. The bars easily cater to buyers who may not be interested in a regular food bar because they see it as a snack, not a breakfast.

"This is a food bar with a twist," Placencia said, noting that last year's introduction of the Squares prompted manufacturers of other foods to beef up promotional activity.

"[Kellogg's] Pop-Tarts are now paying more attention and becoming more active in the business," she pointed out.

Along with Quaker, Kellogg, Battle Creek, Mich., markets bite-size bars called Nutri-Grain Minis, which come in flavors like strawberry with yogurt icing. Retailers typically merchandise the mini food bars in the breakfast bar section, adjacent to full-size bars like Kellogg's Nutri-Grain and Special K bars. The bite-size bars are the latest attempt to take a known cereal brand and use it to launch a dry bar product.

Snack, cereal, granola and wellness bars generated $889.6 million in all outlets for the two-year period ending Feb. 22, according to a report by Information Resources Inc., Chicago. That's a 44% growth rate, giving the category the best average growth rank of all food and beverage categories with an estimated growth of $200 million or more.

There's an indication that breakfast and cereal bars are poised for even more growth because they're considered a healthy snack on one hand, and one of the best "off-and-running" breakfast choices for busy teens on the other hand, according to IRI.

"In many houses, the alternative [to food bars] is skipping breakfast or eating totally indulgent, sugary foods," the IRI report states.

Bars are strong performers at Clements' Marketplace, where they are merchandised in 16 linear feet and generate 30% margins, according to Clements. He added that now is a good time for food bars because children are back in school, and parents are in search of quick-and-easy breakfast solutions.

"Food bars may not be the most nutritious form of breakfast, but parents feel they're better than nothing at all," Clements said.

Breakfast bars may attract most of the attention, but they aren't the only items retailers are carrying to woo time-starved consumers. Others include Quaker Oatmeal Express, a 1.9-ounce, single-serve cup of oatmeal that can be heated in a microwave; and General Mills' Chex Morning Mix, a cereal in a pouch that contains Chex cereal, fruits and nuts.

In addition to the product itself, packaging is becoming easier for consumers to handle and open. Clements noted that packaging for several breakfast foods have perforated tops that kids can easily tear off.

Even the frozen food department, traditionally home to quick-serve breakfast items like frozen waffles and pancakes, is catering more heavily to today's busy lifestyles, according to Kim Heseman, frozens category manager, Buehler Foods, Jasper, Ind.

Take Swanson's Great Starts, handheld frozen breakfasts from Pinnacle Foods Corp., Mountain Lakes, N.Y. Great Starts come in several varieties, including egg, bacon and cheese on a muffin or bagel. Heseman predicted that additional innovations will hit the department now that Aunt Jemima, Lender's and other popular frozens brands are under Pinnacle's control. These brands were formerly marketed by Aurora Foods, which Pinnacle acquired this year.

"It will be interesting to see how Pinnacle handles this [category]," Heseman said.

Pinnacle has already launched a handheld frozen sandwich called Aunt Jemima Griddlecakes, a frozen breakfast sandwich made with maple-flavored pancakes, egg, sausage and cheese -- much like the McGriddles line of sandwiches developed by McDonald's, the Oak Brook, Ill.-based fast-food chain.

"Protein meals cater to adults, while grains like pancakes appeal to kids. When combined, this makes this an all-family breakfast," said Jason Nibauer, Pinnacle's director of marketing, breakfast and pizza.

Pinnacle plans to grow the frozen breakfast category in other ways, according to Nibauer. "Waffles may be the destination, but there's opportunity to get people to shop the rest of the section," he said.

Buehler's Heseman cited Pillsbury frozen dinner rolls and biscuits from General Mills as an example, calling the rolls one of the most innovative products to hit the frozen food case because they go directly from the freezer to the oven. They are also packaged in resealable bags, so families can bake the number they need, then store the rest for later. Heseman said many people eat the rolls and biscuits for breakfast, either on their own, or filled with eggs or another protein.

The chain's 28 stores devote about five doors to standard breakfast foods like frozen waffles. An additional door is dedicated to handheld items, including breakfast varieties in the Hot Pockets line from Nestle Prepared Foods. Retailers need to stock convenience items -- and promote them -- to compete with quick-serve restaurants and even public schools, many of which offer breakfast, Heseman noted.

"We need to remind people we have convenience items so that they know fast-food restaurants aren't the only places to get them," he said.

Along with competition from fast-food restaurants, there are other hurdles to overcome in the on-the-go food sector. One of the biggest drawbacks to alternative breakfast foods is the higher price points that typically accompany them, retailers said. The majority of convenience products cost at least $3 to $4, which is too steep for many shoppers, retailers told SN.

"Cost-wise, some of these convenient items are pretty pricey," said Placencia from Andronico's. Andronico's previously carried General Mills' Chex Morning Mix, but its wholesaler discontinued it, a move Placencia attributed to its price point. The fact that it was packaged in handy single-serve bags wasn't enough to persuade enough of Andronico's customer base to buy it.

"People would rather buy a box of cereal and put it in their own plastic bags," she said.

Store demographics also play a large role in whether or not such products do well. Carter's, Charlotte, Mich., does a better business in traditional boxed cereals because it caters to seniors and price-conscious families, according to Carla Wilmore, grocery manager. Carter's does carry bars in a four-foot section, but due to flat sales, there are no plans to increase that size, Wilmore stated. She has been presented with an array of new breakfast foods. Yet based on prior experience, she'll bring in only a few, opting to focus instead on cereal.

"Most of our customers want cereal and only cereal," she said.

While grab-and-go foods have created more competition for cereal, the category nevertheless has posted small growth. U.S. cereal sales grew from $8.5 billion in 1998 to $9 billion in 2003, a 1% annual increase, according to Mintel.

The category has remained stable because manufacturers have increased promotional activity and price discounts, said Mike Yaussi, grocery manager, Leeker's Family Foods, Wichita, Kan.

"Practically every week, a different cereal brand will be promoted at two for $5," he said, adding that Post, Kellogg and other manufacturers even occasionally offer cereals at five for $10.