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Meat alternatives have occupied a comfortable niche in the frozen department for several years; however, veggie burgers and their ilk have recently taken a more mainstream turn. The segment has become a supplemental bridge for the health-conscious carnivore, while still providing faithful vegetarians with tasty, meatless options.Numbers for the traditional grocery channel show the frozen and refrigerated

Meat alternatives have occupied a comfortable niche in the frozen department for several years; however, veggie burgers and their ilk have recently taken a more mainstream turn. The segment has become a supplemental bridge for the health-conscious carnivore, while still providing faithful vegetarians with tasty, meatless options.

Numbers for the traditional grocery channel show the frozen and refrigerated meat alternative category posting a 3.6% increase in dollars -- totaling $267 million in sales -- for the 12-month period ended May 2001, according to SPINS, a consulting and research firm based in San Francisco and specializing in the natural foods industry. The natural foods channel witnessed a 10.1% increase with $51 million in sales for those same 12 months.

Some detractors claim the meaty pretense of a veggie burger turns the committed vegetarian off; however, Goldie Caughlan, nutrition education manager for the Puget Consumer's Co-op, Seattle, disagrees. Caughlan believes the category's convenient adaptability, perfect for a quick barbecue or saute, is a universal draw. Many seasoned vegetarians do not cook much, and they are grateful for a quick solution, she said. In addition, these products reach out to the non-vegetarian clientele who are simply trying to reduce their reliance on meat.

"No matter how well-motivated people are from an intellectual standpoint, we are all under time constraints, so people look for what tastes good and is not too hard to fix," she said. "People don't necessarily think of these products as vegetarian or otherwise."

Linda Gilbert, the president of HealthFocus, a marketing research and consulting firm out of Atlanta, also identified the potential of the "vegetarian aware" consumers: those who are trying to eat less meat but do not intend to give it up all together. In Gilbert's opinion, meat alternatives are not an either/or proposition.

"Veggie burgers can coexist on the menu with regular burgers," she said. "We like sandwiches, and we particularly like burger-type sandwiches. This basically gives people another burger-type choice.

"As long as it still satisfies that desire for that burger-eating experience, it works."

During the holidays, the desire to satisfy diverse dietary needs is strong, and most people will make concessions for a family meal. Frozen tofurky and unchicken offerings are very popular for the holiday season, Caughlan noted.

"Even those who normally sneer at anything that is a blatant analog will add that to their menu for a more festive feel," she said.

These products are generally packaged with gravy and mashed potatoes and can make a very nice presentation when served with traditional holiday vegetables and garnish, she added. Most PCCs pick these items up for the holidays and, according to Caughlan, some of the larger stores continue to carry them all year.

In addition to the broad trend toward healthier living, recent events such as mad cow disease and the hoof-and-mouth epidemic have brought food safety into sharper focus. Some believe the recent growth spurt of the meat alternative category can be partially attributed to the consumer's fear of a contaminated meat supply.

Scott Incardone, a frozen food buyer for Unified Western Grocers, the Los Angeles-based distributor, has seen the segment grow by "leaps and bounds."

"This category is just starting to get really popular," he said. "I saw it starting here last year. I think they have been trying for years and people are locking in now over mad cow disease and hoof-and-mouth."

Livestock is only one facet of increasing concerns regarding the integrity of food supply, and Caughlan has seen a consistent demand for organic and all-natural meat alternatives in the recent fervor over genetically modified ingredients.

"Organic is big in people's minds. Consumers feel they can't avoid genetically altered soy or corn or canola unless they choose organic items," she said.

Recognizing that demand, Boca Burger -- now under the generous auspices of Kraft -- became the first national manufacturer to offer an organic veggie burger in April of this year. According to Sarah Delea, a spokeswoman for Boca Burger, the product is currently positioned primarily for the natural foods channel. However, the company does anticipate eventual entry into the mainstream channel.

"We have a lot of consumers looking for products made with organic ingredients. We want to satisfy those consumers," said Delea.

Bill Gillispie, general director of meat, seafood and deli for Supervalu's Cub Foods division, Minneapolis, told SN that in a recent category review with Kraft, the organic products did not come into play. Given Cub's prominence as a low-price leader, Gillispie was uncertain as to the reception of an organic entry within that market, as they tend to be more expensive. However, he did feel an all-natural or organic option could work in some of the chain's Minnesota locations.

"In our Minnesota stores, we do have a Cub natural section that does pretty well for us. In Minnesota, we're not always perceived as a discounter. We're a little more mainstream in that market," he explained.

Gilbert maintained that the relative cost of an organic veggie burger could hinder the product's growth. Something like a meat alternative is especially susceptible to this kind of pricing pressure as the original product is already deemed fairly healthy, making consumers less likely to pay more for the added-value version.

"We see this a lot with something like juice," she said. "Some people may buy a lot of organic, but they don't buy organic juice."

Even standard veggie burgers tend to be expensive, yet the uniqueness of the product appears to justify the expense in the minds of consumers. Still, retailers are counting on an increase in price promotions to boost sales. They are looking to the segment's mainstream movement to raise the competitive bar, particularly with national players like Kraft and ConAgra showing a heightened interest.

"These products tend to be a little more expensive, and the portions are smaller," said Unified's Incardone. "But we're seeing a lot of these meat alternative companies joining with large companies." Since Kraft Foods bought Boca Burger in Feb., 1999, the line is promoted more often and at a higher rate of discount, he said.

Conventional chains are responding to the promotional bluster. The frozen meat-alternative segment is still a very small percentage of Cub's frozen sales, but it is definitely growing, Gillispie said. Cub will be allotting more space to the segment, which Gillispie felt was underperforming in his stores.

"We're going to run more ads and TPRs [temporary price reductions]," he said. "And there are SKUs [stockkeeping units] we are not carrying that we're going to get in there."

In the past, his stores had not been paying the category sufficient attention, and he is anticipating a TPR and display schedule that will run for four weeks every quarter.

George Timms, a frozen buyer for Minyard Foods, Coppell, Texas, said that his stores have not been dedicating as much time and space to the category as they should be. According to Timms, they have not allotted more freezer space to meat alternatives in some time, although it is something he will probably be looking into soon. While Timms recently ran a 60-day promotion on the entire Morning Star line at his stores -- including meatless breakfast links and chicken nuggets -- these products have a faithful customer base that is somewhat immune to price.

"You've got a certain clientele, and this is what they buy," he said. "They don't care if it's sale or regular price; this is what they want.

"And you can't give it away to some people. They're just not going to eat healthy."

Veggie burgers and breakfast links are not alone in the alternative frozen category. Healthy, vegetarian foils to TV dinners and frozen pizza are beginning to spread to the mainstream market. Companies like Amy's and The Hain Celestial Group offer entire meatless meals such as soy-based breakfast burritos and vegetarian lasagna.

"It's [Amy's] a wonderful bridge for people making changes," Caughlan said.

He also noted the rising popularity of non-dairy pocket snacks and pizza using rice crust and non-dairy cheese alternatives for the vegan consumer, those who shun animal products of any kind. The growing selection has added a new versatility to the vegetarian and vegan frozen food section. Many people take these entrees as a healthy microwave option to work, or use them as after-school snacks for their children.

At Unified, Incardone is beginning to see an increased demand for vegetarian entree selections. While the distributor does not carry the Amy's line at this time, some of its retail members do purchase that product, and he is looking into picking it up.