ORLANDO, Fla. (FNS) -- As supermarkets answer consumer demand for more exotic items, retailers will find that frozens fit nicely into their fresh-meals programs, a food-service consultant revealed at the National Frozen Food Association convention here.
Nancy Kruse, president of Kruse Co., Atlanta, advised retailers to follow the restaurant industry's increased use of frozen ethnic items as they face a lack of staff expertise and labor time.
"[Supermarkets] don't have the labor that can deliver a consistent product," she said. "Indian, Japanese and other ethnic foods that are becoming more popular have a bright future in frozens."
Restaurant purchases of frozen beef used to make Greek gyros, for example, jumped 24% from 1994 to 1997. Ethnic appetizers, including stuffed grape leaves, won tons, quesadillas, pierogies and Phyllo dough items are also ideal frozen purchases, since they require specialized knowledge to create, Kruse said.
"Small ethnic bites that are very labor-intensive are a great opportunity for operators," she said.
In addition to ethnic entrees and appetizers, retailers can find profit potential in other areas to capitalize on the latest trends, including:
* Bread: Specialty breads are one of the hottest new areas as Americans consume more wheat flour and bread items, according to Kruse. In the restaurant arena, Donato's Focaccia Bread Sticks and Red Lobster's Cheddar Bay Biscuits are good examples of signature bread products that differentiate the chains from their competitors.
Kruse urged retailers to consider several different forms of bread, including bagels and soft pretzels, such as Starbuck's Bavarian Pretzel Roll. New technology in pretzel-dough manufacturing allows it to be used as part of sandwiches, or for dipping, she pointed out.
Pizza is another major growth area, and retailers can develop their own signature products to stand out from other stores. Take these examples from the restaurant business: Pizza Hut's Stuffed Crust pizza, Applebee's Veggie Patch pizza and Subway's Focaccia Pan Slice pizza.
Tortilla wraps have also "taken off like gangbusters," Kruse said. U.S. tortilla sales are growing about 11% a year, she said, and are wrapping everything from chicken to vegetables.
Pitas and other forms of bread are also hot: Wendy's pitas have been successful and serve as a "carrier for salad," Kruse noted, allowing the quick-service chain to phase out its salad bars. At Taco John's, a Focaccia Taco has become a customer favorite.
Kruse also said she believes relatively unknown forms of bread, such as Naan, will become popular in the future. Naan is a flat Indian bread popular in many West Coast eateries, though Kruse sees it becoming a nationwide trend.
* Meats: Retailers can also take advantage of the sales growth in smoked, cured and grilled meats. Although many restaurants used to grill meat, then add the sauce, the new trend is to emphasize how the meat was prepared. For example, Chevy's advertises that its meats are wood-grilled, in-house. And supermarkets can take advantage of the trend as equipment manufacturers introduce less expensive equipment, according to Kruse.
"[Manufacturers] are putting more emphasis on smoker cabinets that are modest in size and easy to operate, so operators can do smoking on premise, to give variety," she said.
* Comfort Foods: "Blue-plate specials are back [since] more than half of all moms work," Kruse said. Success stories include Cracker Barrel's Country Fried Steak, Cheesecake Factory's Shepherd's Pie and Black-Eye Pea's Meat Loaf Stuffed Spud.
* Potatoes: As the No. 1 favorite side dish in America, potato dishes can be offered in a variety of ways. Unique products used by the restaurant industry include: Arby's Potato Cakes, Boston Market's Garlic and Dill New Potatoes and Fat Tuesday's Pizza Fries.
* Desserts: This post-meal specialty is an often-overlooked area that could be profitable, Kruse said. "More desserts are now consumed out of the home than in home, yet few operators are doing anything to merchandise their desserts," she said. Desserts should be presented in an appealing way to customers as soon as they walk in the door.
For example, LaMadeline, a bakery/cafe in Dallas, places its fresh pastries in a glass case at the front of the store. "You walk by the pastry counter even before you get to the main event. The idea is planted in your mind to save room for a beautiful dessert," Kruse said. Hot dessert trends include treats with liqueurs, high-grade chocolates and fruit purees drizzled over the dessert.
* Sauces: A variety of ethnic and exotic sauces allows retailers to try new recipes. Sauces growing in popularity include: Teriyaki, curry, Szechuan Kung Pao and Thai Peanut, according to Kruse. T.G.I. Friday's plays up sauces by offering several different varieties with its hamburgers. Bahama Breeze, a successful new restaurant concept from Darden Restaurants, livens up its entrees with sauces such as Apple-Mango Salsa and Guava Glaze.