Good Eats

SUPERMARKET FRESH MEALS PROGRAMS have given consumers a good reason to eat at home. Not only can these meals be less expensive than restaurant food, they're just as convenient and, more important, have retained qualities like freshness and healthfulness that restaurant menus brag about. We always try and make sure that healthy meals are part of the total product mix, said Nancy Wingfield, director

SUPERMARKET FRESH MEALS PROGRAMS have given consumers a good reason to eat at home. Not only can these meals be less expensive than restaurant food, they're just as convenient and, more important, have retained qualities like freshness and healthfulness that restaurant menus brag about.

“We always try and make sure that healthy meals are part of the total product mix,” said Nancy Wingfield, director of foodservice at Ukrop's Super Markets, the Richmond, Va.-based chain well known for its extensive selection of high-quality prepared foods.

With people frequenting restaurants less and eating at home more, the need for retailers to strike the right balance with their fresh meals selection is greater than ever. According to data from Mintel, 54% of consumers say they're cutting back on restaurant spending. At the same time, supermarket retailers have come into their own as providers of high-quality, convenient meals that rival any Chili's or Applebee's. They've also ramped up service with extra touches like in-store seating, curbside pickup and online meal assembly.

“It's not just competing with restaurants, it's also meeting the demands that Americans have for the foods they eat,” said Kara Nielsen, trendologist at the Center for Culinary Development in San Francisco.

In September, Supervalu, Eden Prairie, Minn., released its Culinary Circle line of foods, which include a selection of time-honored dishes like rotisserie chicken, chicken marsala and rosemary garlic mashed potatoes. Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Markets, El Segundo, Calif., also introduced a line of fresh meals in the fall — a mix-and-match assortment that combines meats, vegetarian dishes and sauces to create a meal for two for around $10. These lean more on the epicurean side, with better-for-you dishes like sweet and sour vegetables with egg fried rice, but according to spokesman Brendan Wonnacott, one of the best-selling meals right now is good old-fashioned shepherd's pie.

Krista Faron, senior analyst with Mintel, said that health and wellness concepts are being incorporated into, as well as alongside, comfort favorites. Grilled chicken is now a popular alternative to fried chicken. Whole grains are working their way into pastas, deli sandwiches and more. Even ethnic foods, which often feature low-fat condiments like tapenades and chimichurri sauces for meat, are becoming more healthful and influencing other categories.

“I don't think that health and comfort foods are mutually exclusive,” said Faron. “Just as a lot has been made over the past couple years about flavor diversity, a lot has also been made of health and wellness, and that also is not going to go away because times are tough.”

In this down economy, consumers will be more inclined to spring for healthful foods that are easy to recognize. Retailers, Faron and others explained, should therefore merchandise around familiar favorites like green beans, salads and diced fruit.

It also helps to offer meal deals whenever possible. According to Wingfield, Ukrop's recently ran a promotion where customers could build a meal for four for under $20. Similarly, Lubbock, Texas-based United Supermarkets is currently offering family meals for under $15, as well as a gourmet dinner-for-two special for $13.99 at its Market Street banner.

And, of course, it never hurts to round out the experience with restaurant-like touches. Ada's Natural Foods, Fort Myers, Fla., has its own in-house chef, Brooke Wagenheim, who prepares more than 20 types of prepared foods daily. These include ethnic and gourmet specialties like Indian chicken and roasted greens over brown rice with grape leaves, as well as comfort favorites like quiche and lasagna.

In addition to preparing meals, Wagenheim also offers recipes that connect to ingredients found within the store, as well as a variety of healthy cooking classes. She's even started offering to come to customers' homes for private lessons.

“My goal is to try to reach as many people as I can, and to let them know how important it is to eat healthy — and then give them ways to do it in this economy,” she said.

No matter where the economy stands, industry observers said, it's always important to emphasize freshness. At Ada's, Wagenheim often cooks with local and seasonal ingredients. These take a little more time to find, she said, but they cost around the same as conventional options, and they carry a fresh appeal that consumers recognize.

Connections can also be made between fresh meals and items throughout the store. Workers can assemble salads using produce from the store's perimeter, and signage can link the two areas for cross-merchandising purposes.

“Supermarkets can get really fresh food, and fresh is considered healthy, as well as high-quality, right now,” said Nielsen with the Center for Culinary Development. “Instead of pouring a No. 10 can of vegetables into their soup, they can use fresh vegetables that are less processed.”

Good Advice

  • Offer healthy takes on comfort classics, like baked or grilled chicken instead of fried.
  • Play up local and seasonal ingredients in prepared meals. These cost around the same as conventional alternatives, and they have the extra allure of being fresh.
  • Utilize ingredients from other parts of the store to take advantage of cross-promotional opportunities.
  • Offer meal deals wherever possible. Consumers are searching for value in their prepared foods.

Good Eats Bonus: Wheeling and Dealing

As their budgets tighten, consumers are increasingly searching for value. This has led supermarkets to offer more deals than ever on their fresh meals that combine hearty comfort foods with healthful touches.

United Supermarkets, Ukrop's and other retailers offer a dinner-for-two deal that provides gourmet meals at a set price. At United's Market Street stores, the promotion includes dishes like chicken spaghetti with seasoned green beans, a Caesar salad and stirato rolls, all for $13.99. A recent dinner-for-two special at Ukrop's included eggplant parmigiana, a garden salad and white rolls. In addition to this, the Richmond, Va.-based retailer recently offered a meal-for-four deal for $20 where customers chose their own entrees, sides and starches from a set list.

“Through our weekly ad circular, we would highlight an entree and maybe a side and a starch, creating that mentality that you can buy these three items and create your own meal,” said Nancy Wingfield, director of foodservice at Ukrop's.

Restaurants Respond

According to the latest numbers from restaurant tracking firm Technomic, 2009 is shaping up to be the worst year on record for the industry, with overall sales expected to fall by 2.2%.

This is clearly an opportunity for supermarkets to capitalize with their foodservice offerings — but retailers shouldn't get cocky. Restaurants are starting to fight back with lower prices, meal deals and other ways for customers to get the most bang for their buck. Outback Steakhouse is currently offering a steak dinner for under $10. Bob Evans and TGI Fridays are both offering lunch and dinner specials for $5.99.

These may not be the healthiest deals, but they're effective nonetheless. According to the NPD Group, Port Washington, N.Y., 23% of restaurant visits are being prompted by meal deal offerings — a 9% increase from a year ago.

“Smart restaurants have reacted to the supermarket threat by redoubling their menu R&D efforts and reconsidering their value propositions,” wrote columnist Nancy Kruse in the November issue of Nation's Restaurant News.

Chef Knows Best

Celebrity chefs like Mario Batali and Wolfgang Puck have made their way into the supermarket through their own lines of branded products. Now, retailers are further capitalizing on the allure of the toque with their own in-house chefs.

At Ada's Natural Foods in Fort Meyers, Fla., chef Brooke Wagenheim prepares more than 20 fresh meals from scratch daily. Using organic and seasonal ingredients, she cooks up an array of gourmet and healthy foods, like chicken cutlet with lemon and tuna salad, as well as comfort food staples like lasagna. Beyond fixing meals, Wagenheim is also the store's go-to source for healthful cooking tips. She conducts in-store classes, and she welcomes any customer to talk shop with her — provided she's not wearing her red hat.

“If you see me wearing the red hat, that means I'm really busy,” she said.

Kara Nielsen, trendologist with the Center for Culinary Development, has noticed the rise in supermarket chefs. In addition to pop-culture popularity, she thinks the trend can also be attributed, ironically, to the restaurant industry's woes.

“Restaurant chefs are transitioning to foodservice because it's a better lifestyle — a Monday-through-Friday gig,” she said.