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Home meal replacements stay hot

With Americans still clamoring for convenience in the kitchen, food marketers find packaging that offers opportunities in the home meal replacement category.

Stouffer Foods is launching ?Skillet Sensations,? frozen, stand-up, pouch-packed HMRs, which are expected to be in full nati
Stouffer Foods is launching ?Skillet Sensations,? frozen, stand-up, pouch-packed HMRs, which are expected to be in full nati

New entries into the still-growing Home Meal Replacement foods category continue to surface around the country. Almost as intriguing as the meals themselves are the circumstances that led to their launches.

At Nestlé USA's Food Division in Solon, OH, for example, new "Skillet Sensations" were designed to offer the shelf appeal of a printed folding carton, especially in the vertical freezer cabinet of today's supermarket. This HMR offering was planned for national distribution by the first of this month. It's already causing a stir among retailers and consumers alike.

Available under both the Stouffer's and Stouffer's Lean Cuisine banners, "Skillet Sensations" includes 14 different meals-all containing either chicken, turkey or beef with rice, pasta or potatoes plus vegetables.

The pre-cooked individually quick frozen (IQF) meals are packaged in what may be the first horizontal stand-up, gusset-bottom flexible film bags. They are formed in-plant from pre-printed rollstock, filled and sealed. Each package contains 24 to 25 oz, enough to serve two people. Suggested retail price per bag is $4.69. No further packaging details were available at press time.

Meal preparation instructions tell consumers to empty the bag contents into a skillet for reheating in 12 to 15 min. Microwaving is not recommended. The one-step skillet preparation provides consumers with high-quality, homestyle meals that would be difficult and time-consuming to prepare from scratch. Meal varieties range from Cheddar Beef and Chicken Alfredo (Stouffer's line) to Beef Fajitas and Chicken Primavera (Stouffer's Lean Cuisine line).

The UK connection

Celentano Foods, Verona, NJ, entered the prepared refrigerated foods market about nine years ago, when the company was sought out as a supplier by King supermarkets. King is a New Jersey store chain owned by Marks & Spencer, UK. Of course, Marks & Spencer has long been a major driver of fresh, refrigerated prepared foods in Europe.

"We've done a lot of packaging experimentation over the years," Tito DiVirgilio, director of product resources for Celentano, tells Packaging World. "Our first refrigerated home meal replacement products were packaged in microwavable clamshells. Then we went to black microwavable trays with separate domed lids. Then we tried ovenable paperboard trays with gas barrier and tear-away paperboard tops. Now we've settled on CPET dual-ovenable trays with antifog lidding film. Even though dual-ovenability probably isn't an issue for most consumers these days, we like providing that option, and we like the sturdy performance of CPET." The lidding material is OL-134AF from DuPont (Wilmington, DE).

Tray supplier Fresh Ideas (Sewickley, PA) is capable of providing custom trays, lids and sleeves. But Celentano has opted for stock CPET (crystallized polyethylene terephthalate) trays in a range of sizes to accommodate a product line of about 20 HMR items-ranging from eggplant Parmesan and baked ziti to burritos, meat entrees and Asian cuisine. "We could do many more items," says DiVirgilio. "At one point, we were doing about forty different HMRs. But more items means more changeovers. We decided to reduce the line and focus on building volume within that line.

"We also determined that we really didn't need a high-end custom container for these products, just something with a neat and clean appearance. Consumers seem to want their HMRs to look as if they were packaged right in the deli section of the supermarket. We make our packaging visually distinctive by applying wraparound labels that we print in-house to accommodate our constant menu rotation."

While the bulk of Celentano's business is still in the frozen category, the refrigerated lines have been experiencing steady growth. The company markets its own brand under the "Real Meals" name and also does contract private-label products-for example, for King supermarkets. Three years ago, Celentano installed a state-of-the-art clean room to handle its expanding line of extended-refrigerated-shelf-life products. Overall, the cost of packaging and protecting the quality of refrigerated products is greater than the corresponding cost for frozen products. But Celentano views its clean room as an important investment in an emerging market.

For the important task of evacuation, backflushing and lidding the trays, Celentano relies on a rotary system from Orics (College Point, NY). "It's a good mid-level, moderate-speed system," says DiVirgilio. "It's reliable. We run it four days a week and haven't had any problems. We use a carbon dioxide/nitrogen gas blend-a middle-of-the-road mix suitable for our diverse product line. We fill the trays, pull a vacuum, back flush with the gas mix and hermetically seal the package, making sure the oxygen level within the package is less than five percent. Refrigerated shelf life for most of our HMRs is probably up to sixteen days, but we code them all at eleven days just for an extra measure of safety and quality."

Celentano's customers typically have distribution companies pick up the fresh product at the Celentano plant and transport it to central distribution locations. From there, product is shipped to stores. The whole process, says DiVirgilio, can be accomplished within 24 hours.

All of Celentano's HMR products are produced for retail consumer outlets. If the retailer prefers, the products can be shipped frozen, then thawed at store-level for marketing out of the refrigerator case. That's how Celentano is providing these products to Wal-Mart.

DiVirgilio stresses that "even though packaging is critically important, the retailer is really the key to the success of freshly prepared, refrigerated products. First of all, retailers have to give these products shelf space. Then they have to promote, advertise, display and market them with some enthusiasm. HMRs can give retailers a competitive edge, as they did in Europe for Marks & Spencer."

A master of display

Canteen Vending Services, Charlotte, NC, is poised to help retailers and food processors in their freshly prepared, prepackaged refrigerated food marketing efforts. The nation's oldest and largest vending company has expanded its business beyond traditional vending machines into a new generation of vending kiosks for in-store refrigerated display of fresh, prepared products. The goal of Canteen's "FRESH TO YOU" program is to re-invent the $31 billion vending industry by setting a new industry standard in the freshness, quality and variety of vended foods, says Mike Kiser, vice president of merchandising at Canteen.

Along with the September 1998 program launch, Canteen has forged some impressive and exclusive alliances with companies such as Blimpie, Hardee's, Nathan's and Red Baron. These partnerships enable Canteen's production facilities (in Charlotte and seven other plants strategically located around the U.S.) to package and distribute to retailers a range of home meal replacement-type products with high-profile brand identities.

Because the marketing strategy is to turn over these fresh-food, kiosk-displayed products every second day, extended shelf life is not an essential element of the packaging design. Instead, Canteen is aiming to provide consumer-convenient packaging with strong visual impact, accentuating brand name familiarity. However, there are some unique packaging approaches used in the system. For example, fresh sliced tomatoes for the Blimpie sandwiches are packed and kiosk-displayed in separate pouches. Customers can choose whether they want their sandwiches with or without tomatoes and other ingredients.

The Market Central fresh food kiosks are integrated to include fresh foods, snacks and a range of beverages-a one-stop, quick-meal center.

For busy poultry lovers

Rocco, Inc., Harrisonburg, VA, has recently launched a single-serving HMR line called "HomeStyle Fresh Meals in Minutes" under the Shady Brook Farms brand name. The line includes five precooked gourmet poultry items, including Chicken Breast with Teriyaki Sauce on Wild Rice and Turkey Meatloaf with Mashed Potatoes and Gravy.

Diane Kull, R&D manager for Shady Brook Farms, tells PW, "When we developed our packaging for these products, our emphasis was on assuring fresh, never-frozen products with guaranteed fourteen-day refrigerated shelf life. Our main criteria were good oxygen barrier, consumer-convenient ovenable trays, durability for distribution and high-clarity lidding film with high-integrity sealability."

Kull says the packages are shipped directly to supermarkets in Rocco's own fleet of refrigerated trucks, which can serve 70% of the U.S. within 48 hours.

The Shady Brook Farms line of turkey- and chicken-based HMRs is packaged in rectangular CPET trays. Says Kull, "The choice of container shape was retailer-driven. Store managers were telling us that oval-shaped trays are not space-efficient-that they take up more refrigerated display space than rectangular containers. So we use black, rectangular, dual-ovenable CPET trays. We opted for stock over custom, because custom trays are more expensive, and the stock trays work fine for us at a lower cost. The decision to go with CPET rather than with a microwave-only tray did mean a higher cost for us. Dual-ovenability definitely adds cost. But we can rest assured that if any of our trayed products end up being heated in a conventional oven, they're going to hold up." Tray supplier for Rocco is Mullinix (Ft. Wayne, IN).

Kull points out, "Of the five selections, only the turkey meatloaf with mashed potatoes is packaged in a compartmented tray. We use anti-fog lidding film from Du Pont for all the items."

The trays are hand-filled and taken to lidding equipment supplied by Orics. "We pull a vacuum, flush with a carbon dioxide/nitrogen mix and seal," says Kull. "The gas blend is supplied to us premixed in cylinders by several different suppliers. We complete the package with a pressure-sensitive, multi-colored wraparound label supplied by several different companies."

Shady Brook Farms conducted extensive consumer research to help in the development both of the products themselves and their packaging. As director of marketing Jim Hoagland notes, "These products are ready-to-eat and cost-effective enough to eat every day." Suggested retail price is $3.99 per package. Average meal weight is 12 oz, except for the turkey meatloaf product, which weighs 16 oz.

Success on a limited budget

Owned and operated by women on a limited budget, Quita Kilos, Monterrey, Mexico, could be described as a budding Weight Watchers-type food processing company. Loosely translated, "quita kilos" means "take away pounds." Initially devoted to producing freshly prepared, low-calorie baked products, the company is looking toward the HMR category with enthusiasm. As Quita Kilos spokesperson Lucia Aldape reports, "Our customers want prepared meals because they don't have time to prepare them themselves. So we have started making low-calorie, high-nutrition meals ready-to-eat. Up until now, these meals have been marketed frozen. But we are gearing up to do refrigerated meals, using the same packaging system we now use for our fresh baked goods."

The company's packaging systems supplier, Redex Packaging (Schaumburg, IL), has been closely involved in the effort, as have food science staffers from the University of Monterrey. The strategy was to first do the needed homework on frozen meals before launching a refrigerated line. To develop the refrigerated meals, Quita Kilos enlisted the assistance of chefs and microbiologists at Redex, who charged an hourly rate. The development team also assisted in the design of a clean room and hot-fill process for the small, independent company.

The packaging equipment selected was a Redex MECA 1000, which evacuates air from the filled trays, gas flushes with a nitrogen/carbon dioxide/trace oxygen mix, seals and quenches the trays. As Ihor Wyslotsky, president of Redex, explains, "Quenching is a process of chilling the seals, while holding the tray and dome seal in a press between cold jaws."

The clamshell barrier trays, patented items supplied by Redex, are made from microwavable maleic anhydrite styrene (maleic anhydrite, says Wyslotsky, is a compound added to styrene to give it better heat resistance). The clamshell design incorporates an easy-open seal strip. Consumers simply lift the tab and peel off the strip by rotating it around the package.

Notes Aldape, "We began by designing a clean room where the machine was to be installed. We did microbiological tests to ensure food safety. Redex provided full technical support and helped with the machine installation and production start-up."

(A free-lance writer based in Lac du Flambeau, WI, Judy Rice is the former packaging editor at Food Processing magazine.)

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