TOPCO ROLLS OUT PREPARED FOODS

CHICAGO -- Topco Associates has introduced an extensive line of prepared foods in multiple categories, including a group of refrigerated entrees that has become the cornerstone of the brand, officials with Topco told SN.The proprietary line of 50 products targets busy consumers who lack the time or inclination to cook, they said, and there are plans to roll out about 150 more items in the coming year.

CHICAGO -- Topco Associates has introduced an extensive line of prepared foods in multiple categories, including a group of refrigerated entrees that has become the cornerstone of the brand, officials with Topco told SN.

The proprietary line of 50 products targets busy consumers who lack the time or inclination to cook, they said, and there are plans to roll out about 150 more items in the coming year. The launch represents the first broad, branded prepared-foods initiative for Topco, a cooperative that services 53 member owners in the retail and wholesale channels. Only members can sell the Dining In line and, right now, 17 members from coast to coast are carrying the entire line or selected products, Topco officials said.

"Topco's membership has really rallied around Dining In," said Jeff Posner, the company's senior vice president and chief procurement officer. "Our members aren't only excited about the additional profits the brand generates, but even more importantly, the differentiation that Dining In provides and the consumer loyalty it builds."

Topco decided to jump into the meals business, realizing it was fragmented and large. No single brand had a corner on the $10 billion ready-meals category, Posner said. Officials saw an opportunity to reach a number of consumer groups, including families, two-income households and retirees.

"We believe that Dining In differs from the national brands in that it offers a complete ready-meals solution across all product categories," Posner said.

The line includes beef dishes made with Certified Angus, including beef pot roast au jus, a best seller; and boneless beef short ribs in barbecue sauce. There's also meat loaf in tomato sauce, lemon pepper chicken breasts, Cajun-seasoned chicken breasts, pasta and sauce items, and seafood dishes, among others.

The entrees, which have a shelf life of 100 days, can be microwaved and ready to serve in two to seven minutes. All but the seafood entrees are fully cooked. Other products in the first wave include three barbecue items featuring Sweet Baby Ray's barbecue sauce and five frozen seafood entrees, officials said.

Aiming to create products with instant appeal, Topco teamed up not only with Sweet Baby Ray's, but with other branded entities, such as Certified Angus Beef. The names and their logos appear on the Dining In packaging. The cooperative contracted with several "best-in-class" food manufacturers to make the products. It took about a year to develop the concept and get the project off the ground, officials said.