RETAILERS TAKE ON NEW VARIETY OF CHOWDER

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- A number of retailers around the country are taking traditional fish chowder one step further by introducing customers to a more exotic variety, one made with conch.Dishes made with conch, a large mollusk native to warm, tropical waters, have long held appeal in homes and food service establishments throughout south Florida and the Caribbean. Now, with the popularity of regional

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- A number of retailers around the country are taking traditional fish chowder one step further by introducing customers to a more exotic variety, one made with conch.

Dishes made with conch, a large mollusk native to warm, tropical waters, have long held appeal in homes and food service establishments throughout south Florida and the Caribbean. Now, with the popularity of regional and ethnic foods on the rise, marketers see an opportunity to promote the chowder on a much wider basis.

"Consumers' increased interest in cooking shows and cookbooks have made them more aware of the variety of foods available to them," said Ron Paul, president, Chicago-based consulting firm, Technominc Inc. "In particular, as restaurants have begun to offer more Caribbean-type dishes, consumers are beginning to look for them more when doing their own shopping."

Among the supermarkets offering the premium chowder are Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix Supermarkets, SuperFresh, a division of A&P, Montvale, N.J. and Wegman's, Rochester, N.Y.

The chowder is manufactured by Key West Gourmet Foods, based here, under the name Key West Conch Chowder. It is the first of six new premium chowders which will be introduced by the company during the coming year.

"Manufacturing Key West Conch Chowder has proved to be quite a challenge because of the conch meat's extremely fragile flavor profile that, until now, did not hold up during processing," said George Gelakis, CEO of Key West Gourmet. "We had to revolutionize the way we process our chowder and develop a whole new packaging technology."

He added that conch meat, though foreign to many pallettes, should appeal to many consumers because it is naturally low in fat and high in protein.

Gelakis said one of their main concerns was to assure that the retail version of the product is of the same caliber as the chowder used by restaurants. To preserve this degree of freshness, the chowder is kettle-cooked and transported directly to a 16-ounce, foil-lined Fresh Pouch which mirrors those used for the military's ready-to-eat meals program. The pouch is promptly sealed and the product quick-chilled to freezing.

"We find this to be a much better pathway for the product," said Gelakis. "The Fresh Pouch offers the best oxygen environment for the chowder."

The chowder is shipped frozen and displayed in the store's fresh seafood department. Marketing for the chowder presently consists of point-of-sale promotions revolving around the company's "Discovering Great Chowder" banner and heavy in-store sampling which Gelakis views as highly beneficial.

"Americans love Caribbean cooking, and they especially like foods that are unique and flavorful," he said, adding that the prepared chowder can be served as a soup, over rice or pasta or as an accompaniment to a larger seafood recipe.