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    GROCERY: Off to a great start

    Sales and merchandising may center on the winter holidays, but the time is always right for an exciting hors d'oeuvres assortment.

    By Richard Turcsik

    Whether they're known as hors d'oeuvres, dim sum, antipasti, starters, appetizers, or finger food is up to the individual, but most consumers agree that, whatever you call the bite-size snacks, they're mighty tasty. And a well-stocked freezer case full of miniature quiches, Pizza Rolls, egg rolls, chicken quesadillas, potato puffs, pinwheels, stuffed mushroom caps, cheese puffs, and the ever-popular pigs in blankets not only adds a touch of class to the frozen foods department, but also bulks up the bottom line, especially during the key winter holiday selling season.

    "The season usually runs from November through January, and Christmas, New Year's, and Super Bowl are the big opportunities for hors d'oeuvres," says Dennis Newnham, chairman and c.e.o. of Steak-Umm Co., the Pomfret Center, Conn.-based manufacturer of the Red-L brand of hors d'oeuvres. "The demand is obviously driven by the consumer, and a few chains will carry our product all year, but the sell-through outside of that time frame is very minimal."

    Late this month Red-L will start gearing up production for the season. "We bring in seasonal help for the line," Newnham says. "There's a lot of hand labor involved in making those little pastries. Our seasonal help comes back year after year, so it only takes them a few days to get back up to speed and get the learning curve in place."

    New this year are Southwestern Chicken and Spinach & Roasted Garlic Crescents. "They focus on our core competency, which is the traditional puff pastry," says Evan Tetreault, director of marketing. "We'll also be bringing back our quiche, which we had off last year."

    "Retailers typically don't want to talk to you about hors d'oeuvres until November, after the turkeys and dressings are off the shelf," says Alan L. Hoover, s.v.p., sales and marketing at Kahiki Foods, a Columbus, Ohio-based manufacturer of Polynesian frozen hors d'oeuvres and frozen and refrigerated entrees. "We start shipping to a lot of store distribution centers shortly before Thanksgiving because they simply don't have the space prior to that," he says. "Just before or shortly after Thanksgiving, it will start hitting store shelves because you have the Christmas parties."

    Year-round opportunities

    This Christmas poses a special challenge. "Christmas is on the fourth Saturday of December this year, so there are only three Saturdays to do any Christmas parties," Hoover notes. "I think a lot of retailers will really be targeting and make sure that they have things ready to go by Dec. 1 for the Christmas season. New Year's falls on a Saturday, too, but New Year's parties can continue on Sunday, especially with the parades and football games going on. Then there are Chinese New Year and the Super Bowl. That 60-day period is always a busy, hectic time frame."

    The conundrum for the hors d'oeuvres industry is how to extend that period to the other 305 days in the year. Chicago-based Black Tie Hors D'oeuvres, a division of Appetizers And, Inc. has come up with a solution. The brand has traded in its old tagline, "From Silver Tray to Everyday," for "Anytime. Anywhere."

    "We took a step back and looked at our business and found that you can use us not only for New Year's or parties, but also with a glass of wine and some friends, or with your spouse as part of a light dinner or snack," says Parveen Werner, senior business development manager.

    While Black Tie does not advertise in the traditional sense, it's putting a lot of effort behind the new slogan. "We do a lot of collaborative marketing with our retailers," says Werner, noting that the company's products are carried in Treasure Island, the Food Emporium division of A&P, and other upscale chains. This winter Black Tie added Beef Duxelle Encroute, Chicken Quesadilla, Crispy Asparagus in Phyllo, and Mushroom Vol-au-vant (wild mushrooms in pastry dough) to its lineup. "Those have been a big hit," she says.

    Food Emporium also stocks Joyce's Hors D'oeuvres, a frozen gourmet line whose roots are in foodservice. "Historically we catered to caterers and also did private label work," says Mitchell Feingold, principal of Miami Onion Roll Co. in Paterson, N.J., which manufactures the line. Among its most popular varieties are its Assorted Puffs, featuring four varieties, and Italian Style Stuffed Mushroom Caps. "We're expanding deeper into the supermarket channel, and we're attempting to make some breakthroughs," he says.

    'All-family appeal'

    The 35-year-old Totino's Pizza Rolls brand has broken through the supermarket channel in a really big way. They're so popular that they even come in a 140-count box. True, that size is sold primarily in the club channel, but the 40-count and 90-count supermarket sizes account for most of the business, having surpassed the original 15-count "trial" size years ago.

    "In terms of usage, our product has an all-family appeal, particularly to households with kids," says Martin Abrams, marketing manager, Totino's Pizza Rolls at General Mills in Minneapolis. "We position them as the hot snack that kids love and can make on their own because they're microwavable. Mom can trust that the kids can make this product when she's not at home without firing up the oven and burning down the house."

    But consumer focus groups have shown General Mills that Totino's Pizza Rolls aren't just for latchkey kids -- they're also a must-have at home movie nights, Halloween parties, teen sleepovers, and Super Bowl parties. "Even if it's a gathering where there are high-end appetizers, if kids are in the mix, [the party planners] make sure to buy Pizza Rolls because they know the kids will eat them," Abrams says.

    And they'll eat Totino's even more often now that General Mills has expanded the Pizza Rolls franchise to include new Sandwich Rolls in Ham & Cheese and Cheeseburger flavors, and Mexican Style Rolls in Chicken Cheese Quesadilla and Cheesy Taco flavors. "Our data shows that the No. 1 food for the last 10 years has been the good old-fashioned ham-and-cheese sandwich," Abrams says. "If you look at other flavors, ham-and-cheese is a popular flavor."

    So is cheeseburger. "When you taste our Cheeseburger Roll, you'll taste a little pickle, ketchup, mustard. It's the cheeseburger experience bundled into one little roll," says Abrams, noting, "We made a conscious effort during development to make sure these were differentiated from pizza."

    The new products will be advertised via commercials with a new play on the classic Pizza Rolls commercial referred to in-house as "the Morph," in which a slice of pizza transforms into a Pizza Roll. "We're going to be morphing cheeseburgers, tacos, and quesadillas into little rolls, and that really helps the consumer understand that we're taking foods they like and putting them into forms that they love," says Abrams.

    People with a penchant for organic foods want to eat hors d'oeuvres, too. "People who are organic really want to demonstrate to everybody they know that this is how they eat, so they become very loyal to these kinds of products," says Steve Warnert, director of marketing at Amy's Kitchen in Santa Rosa, Calif. The Amy's Snacks line includes little stuffed pillows in Cheese Pizza, Spinach Pizza, Spinach Feta, and Nacho Cheese & Bean varieties. "We're hearing that the Whole Foods and Wild Oats of the world are clamoring for more varieties of hors d'oeuvre-type products," Warnert says. "It's one of the fastest-growing segments of the freezer case, and there's just not enough variety out there to meet demand, so we are constantly looking at new ideas."

    Warnert recommends that retailers merchandise Amy's hors d'oeuvres in the organic case, instead of in-line with the other hors d'oeuvre brands. "Our pizza has begun migrating to the main pizza section, but that's a much bigger box, and when you have three boxes on the shelf, you have some presence," he says. "It's a [slightly] different dynamic with appetizers, so I recommend that retailers contain all of their organic appetizer-type products in one location."

    That means Amy's might be near the Health is Wealth brand, which, while not strictly organic, is all natural. The company's vast array of products includes Thai Spring Rolls, Southwest Spring Rolls, Hot & Spicy Spring Rolls, and, scheduled to be released this fall, Thai and Roasted Vegetable Munchees. Other items include mozzarella sticks, chicken nuggets, and chicken-free nuggets. "We are big in the health channel and are also making inroads into regular mass market with a lot of the major chains," says Val Vasilef, president of Williamstown, N.J.-based Health is Wealth. "We just expanded to Fresh Direct [home delivery service], and we've seen a dramatic boost in business from them that we really didn't expect."

    That's really good news, and even better is that hors d'oeuvres seem to have escaped the wrath of Atkins, although most of the products are made with carb-laden puff pastry dough. "Most puff pastry products are going to be used for special occasions," notes Newnham of Steak-Umm. "I suppose most people who are on the Atkins diet make exceptions once in a while, particularly around the holidays. That's when almost everybody moderates their diet significantly."

    By Richard Turcsik
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