NATHAN'S FAMOUS TESTS HMR WATERS AT THREE A&P DIVISIONS

WESTBURY, N.Y. -- Nathan's Famous here is jumping into the home-meal replacement arena, with an initial test of branded products in three divisions of the Montvale, N.J.-based A&P supermarket chain.Best known for its hot dogs and crinkle-cut fries, Nathan's will put its brand on a fuller range of never-frozen, homestyle meal components and complete family-size meals to be marketed fresh in supermarkets

WESTBURY, N.Y. -- Nathan's Famous here is jumping into the home-meal replacement arena, with an initial test of branded products in three divisions of the Montvale, N.J.-based A&P supermarket chain.

Best known for its hot dogs and crinkle-cut fries, Nathan's will put its brand on a fuller range of never-frozen, homestyle meal components and complete family-size meals to be marketed fresh in supermarkets and food outlets, according to Wayne Norbitz, Nathan's president and chief executive officer.

Norbitz said the new menu of products will give Nathan's new points of distribution and a way to further leverage its brand equity. At the same time, supermarkets can benefit by the credibility the Nathan's name will give to the products.

"We feel the home-meal replacement idea is here to stay, and, for supermarkets, brand identity is essential if they're going to foster a quality image with this type of product," Norbitz said.

The company is developing an extensive menu of items, most of which will be packaged in family-size, dual-ovenable containers. Nathan's new lineup of products will include such items as mashed potatoes, mashed sweet potatoes, creamed spinach, ham, turkey, chicken strips and other homestyle items.

Mashed potatoes in three flavors -- buttered, herbed and broccoli and cheese -- are the first products to hit the market, at units operated by A&P.

Waldbaum's, Central Islip, N.Y., an 89-unit division of A&P, began test-marketing the mashed potatoes last week in all its stores. All 35 units of Bronx, N.Y.-based Food Emporium, also a division of A&P, were set to take on the product this month. A number of units of Super Fresh Food Markets, a 70-store A&P division based in Florence, N.J. are also carrying the HMR line. The products are being merchandised in the self-service meat cases at the A&P divisions' stores.

The Nathan's Famous restaurant chain, which had its start in Coney Island, N.Y., in 1916, has spread across the country in a melange of venues, but primarily in kiosks at airports, shopping malls, college campuses, sports arenas and convention centers.

For the past several years, Nathan's branded, packaged hot dog products, mustard, sauerkraut and frozen hamburgers have been offered in supermarkets in the Northeast, California, Florida and in other selected U.S. market areas.

While many people may think of hot dogs when they hear the Nathan's name, Norbitz also expects them to think of variety and quality.

"To those who grew up in the Northeast, particularly in New York, Nathan's means quality and variety. Our larger restaurants have extensive menus. From our point of view, this is a perfect fit. It allows us to leverage the brand equity we have and it fits our distribution strategy," Norbitz said.

It marks a major departure for Nathan's, from being primarily a restaurant operator to greatly expanding its points of distribution with products it has never before put its name to, the Nathan's executive pointed out.

"We chose to do this because there's a need for high-quality, refrigerated products that people can take home and heat up," Norbitz said.

The repertoire of side dishes will be expanded first. Then center-of-the-plate items will be added, said Jerry Morelli, general manager of J.J. Matthews & Co., an Englewood Cliffs, N.J., sales and marketing company that is spearheading the effort for Nathan's.

Nathan's entered into a licensing agreement with J.J. Matthews under which the sales and marketing company will contract with co-packers to produce and package the meal components. Nathan's, in conjunction with J.J. Matthews, will decide what type products will be included in the line, Norbitz said. "We also reserve the right to test the products initially and on a continuing basis,"

The Nathan's executive said his company elected to go the never-frozen, refrigerated route instead of frozen, because quality and taste profile are priorities. The products, most of which will have a 21-day shelf life, will be packaged in dual-ovenable containers with see-through dome tops. A band with the Nathan's Famous name and logo will be wrapped around each package.

No preservatives are used in the manufacture of the items, according to Morelli at J.J. Matthews. He said the Nathan's-labeled products will initially be shipped directly from co-packers to supermarket chains' warehouses.

Also in the beginning, distribution will be limited to the Northeast. Later it will be expanded to other areas of the country to which New Yorkers have migrated, such as Florida, California, Phoenix and Las Vegas, Morelli said. He said he would contract with manufacturers in each of the individual regions to produce the food.

A full menu of products will be rolled out in the next three to six months, Morelli said.