To a layman, the frozen waffle appears to be flimsy piece of breakfast fare. But to supermarkets, the waffle is remarkably sturdy.
That's because frozen waffles are not only holding up the breakfast category; in many instances, they're carrying it forward, said retailers contacted by SN.
As one retailer succinctly put it: "The tonnage of the business is in the waffles."
Retailers reported different levels of success on other frozen breakfast items such as entrees, bagels, burritos, strudel and pizza -- ranging from promising newcomers to flat failures. However, when looking at the overall picture, chain executives said the category has grown 3% to 5% over last year's number.
"Breakfast is a solid category with excellent sales results," said Pat Brooks, director of frozen foods and deli for Save Mart Supermarkets, Modesto, Calif. "And waffles probably have the lion's share of our business. It's the most popular item."
"Overall, the category is doing very well," said Nick Wedberg, vice president of sales and grocery buyer for Plumb's, Muskegon, Mich., "and waffles are doing very well, especially this time of year."
"The category in our part of the country is on an upward trend. It's not growing at a real fast pace, but it's growing," said W.C. Cadle, grocery buyer for AppleTree Markets, Houston.
Rod Boni, grocery merchandiser of frozen food for Pay Less Supermarkets, Anderson, Ind., said waffles are his No. 1 seller. "I think the breakfast category has got to be up right around 3% over last year, with waffles being the category leader."
"Across the board, breakfast is definitely up," said Al Thibodeaux, grocery specialist for M&E Food Mart, Nederland, Texas. "Waffles are our top-selling, No. 1 item."
"The frozen breakfast category is growing and seems to be in the fast lane," said Bob Longtemps, a grocery merchandiser for Malone & Hyde's Miami division. "It's come a long way."
Gene Sninski, director of frozen food for Mayfair Super Markets, Elizabeth, N.J., also said his top seller was frozen waffles -- a category led by the Eggo brand, said retailers.
"Waffles are by far our fastest selling category. In terms of everyday growth and sales, waffles are just tremendous. And our breakfast sales are up," said Sninski, concurring with the 3% to 5% range of sales increase.
"The category is nothing but waffles. If it weren't for waffles, it would be very stagnant," asserted another retailer.
"We're doing real well with waffles," said Brian Ryckley, grocery and frozen buyer for H.G. Hill Stores, Nashville, Tenn. Part of the success is due to the promotional monies manufacturers make available for the product, Ryckley said.
Other things retailers said are driving the waffle ballyhoo include taste, price and convenience. "Convenience is certainly an important reason," said Ryckley. "It's something easy and it cooks up well. And I think that's what consumers want."
"Waffles are the leader. It's an old standby, but its sales are growing," said AppleTree's Cadle.
There are, however, some markets where waffles fall short of the blue ribbon.
For instance, at Wonder Market Cos., Worcester, Mass., waffles represent the third best-selling item. That's because "within the breakfast category, all but one of the top five items are some variety of bagel," according to Liz Gould, senior vice president.
Gould said plain bagels outsell the closest competitor, the onion bagel, at a ratio of 2-to-1. A popular brand of homestyle waffles is a close third. "And these products have held the top positions in the top 10 frozen food breakfast items for a number of years."
Retailers also noted that new items have come into the frozen breakfast category and appear to be creating some excitement, if not frenzied sales.
"Pillsbury Toaster Strudel is doing very well," said Mayfair's Sninski.
"We think that the category is being driven by a variety of new items," Gould said. "Within this year alone, we've seen the introduction of Pillsbury Toaster Strudel, Eggo plain and blueberry mini waffles, and most recently, Aunt Jemima low-fat waffles.
"I'd say these new items have brought consumers into the category. They're unique and they're convenient. They've added some variety, but not much sales; not one of these items comes close to bagel sales and probably never will."
AppleTree's Cadle also noted new items. "Red Baron pizza seems to be doing well. The same can be said for Pillsbury Toaster Strudel; they seem to be upward movers -- not only for breakfast but for other times of the day as well."
"I think some of the things that are also causing category growth is some new items to the category," agreed Plumb's Wedberg, indicating strudel should do well now that the winter months are here.
"And a bunch of entrees are doing quite well. And Tony's breakfast pizza is another new item that's showing some positive signs," said Wedberg.
According to one Midwestern retailer, in some instances pizzas are having to squeeze into an already tight breakfast case.
"The breakfast pizzas are an excellent, quality product," he said. "But some of the problems they've had with that is in the merchandising, because the breakfast section is already crammed. And all the other [pizza manufacturer products] are in the pizza section, so it sometimes meets with retailer resistance."
He said there are times when the breakfast pizza ends up in the regular pizza section, which results in a loss of sales.
"I had a lot of success with toaster strudel," he added. "I was a little hesitant about expanding on those, but they did very well."
Dave Dickerson, grocery merchandiser for Scott's Food Stores, a 13-unit superstore chain based in Fort Wayne, Ind., said, "Tony's breakfast pizza has gotten off to a quick start."
Dickerson said he thinks the success of these new items is driven by the fact that many of these products "are competitively priced and microwavable, which makes them quick and easy."
Malone & Hyde's Longtemps also pointed to quick and easy as being the driving force behind the new appeal of breakfast items. "I think it's been growing in success because the products are ready to go; you just pop it in the microwave," Longtemps said.
Entrees "have pancakes, a little egg, bacon, sausage and so on and so forth," he said. "It makes it easy for the mother to throw them in the microwave and feed her children on their way to school. Breakfast is in the fast lane for working moms and dads in the morning and, sometimes, on the lunch side of it."
With waffles demanding their fair share of case space and new products coming on board, some retailers are adjusting the space allotment of frozen breakfasts. "We expanded it anywhere from one to two doors," said Mayfair's Sninski. "So now our stores have between five and eight doors for frozen breakfast items.
"And in our new store we went to a vertical set where we run them up and down. We used to run the orange juice [vertically] instead of the waffles. Now, we have the waffles running up and down and the juice, a separate category, next to it," he explained. "So the presentation is a lot nicer. I think it should increase sales because the consumer shops up and down."
"The space allotted to the breakfast category hasn't changed much in almost three years," said Wonder Market's Gould. "At that time we added an additional door to the category to accommodate the breakfast entrees. And since then, breakfast entrees are almost a thing of the past and their space has been given to the new items."
"We set each store differently," explained M&E's Thibodeaux. "We get that store's history and try to set up frozen breakfast according to what sells. And if we're remodeling a store, we'll update wherever is necessary."
"I would say retailers aren't adding space to the category," said the Midwestern retailer, "they're adjusting [the product mix] simply because they're tight on other space."
On the advertising and promotion front, retailers said they are benefiting from manufacturer support. Save Mart's Brooks said his store is doing promotional activity to stimulate growth in brands.
"They're all competitive in their advertising, which helps our sales," said Mayfair's Sninski.
"There's really not been any changes in merchandising," said Wonder Market's Gould. "As far as advertising, the most aggressive companies are Eggos and Lenders, who continue to feature their products on a monthly basis."