A sizzling sales race ahead for gourmet frozen foods

A product like ''Filet of Fish Divan'' says a lot about the latest trends in frozen dinners. Delectable? Yes. Gourmet-sounding? Yes. Low-caloric? Yes. Expensive? Yes.

Apparently, consumers can't get enough of this dish. It's made by Stouffer under the label ''Lean Cuisine'' and the company is madly rushing to expand its plant to handle demand for this and 13 other Lean Cuisine frozen entrees.

''Junk food isn't going to cut it anymore (in frozen dinners),'' says Al Jackson, a food analyst at First Boston Corporation. Mr. Jackson says that demand for frozen dinners has been flat in the last few years because of low quality and a saturated market. But the current move toward high-quality dinners , some of them low-cal, has created ''a tremendous, tremendous opportunity'' for the industry, he says.

What makes a premium-quality frozen dinner?

Jim Biggar, Stouffer's chief executive officer, says it means using the natural cut of a fish instead of a portion cut from a block of many fish. Robert Fox, chief executive officer of the Del Monte Corporation, says good-quality dishes have more sauces. And Nicholas Rago, of Armour Dinner Classics, says quality means the choicest cuts of meat and vegetables from Minnesota heartland.

''The consumer is not interested in dining on the tin plate any longer,'' says Mr. Rago, vice-president of Frozen Foods & Food Services, the Armour Food Company division that distributes Dinner Classics.

Dinner Classics are meals like Beef Burgundy and Teriyaki Steak served on white, oval plastic dishes that can be popped into a microwave or conventional oven. ''We haven't spared any expense,'' Rago says. The company's innovative packaging has the rest of the industry looking for alternatives to plastic pouches and tin plates.

Though Dinner Classics retail from $2.39 to $3.19 per single serving, that hasn't stopped their popularity. Sales have grown by more than 150 percent in each of the past three years because of ''consumer repurchasing and market expansion,'' Rago says.

George Domolky, a food analyst at Fidelity Management & Trust Company, compares the trend toward premium frozen foods to a move from Chevrolets to Cadillacs. The profits are ''in the higher-level, higher-income, higher-education market. There will not be much quibbling about price.'' he says.

And ''when you offer something better, there is legitimate demand,'' adds First Boston's Mr. Jackson.

The frozen-entree industry - about a $2 billion-a-year business - has set its sight on this upscale opportunity. Swanson, a division of the Campbell Soup Company, has reportedly seen sales volume slide 16 percent in the last five years. But it has started a campaign to upgrade its basic meat-and-potato frozen fare and launch a line of high-quality entrees under the label ''Le Menu.'' Demand for the product in test markets has been heavy.

Another slow mover, the Morton brand, is under scrutiny by its parent, Del Monte, owned by R. J. Reynolds. Morton, which makes everything from pot pies to doughnuts, was stuck in a long-term decline before it was bought by Del Monte in 1981.

With Morton, Del Monte is ''moving into frozen foods in a big way,'' says its chief, Mr. Fox. ''We purchased Morton as a vehicle to provide us with plants and distribution, which gives us a low-price entry in the market.'' The company is working on new flavors and better-quality ingredients for Morton.

But by early 1984, Fox says, the company also plans to come out with a premium brand under the Del Monte label. The dinners will feature dishes like Chicken Kiev, Chicken Cordon Bleu, omelettes, and quiches. Fox expects the Del Monte brand ''to grow faster than the market,'' while Morton will be ''a slow-growth but still important (brand) . . . that serves the low-price market.''

Del Monte also has a hot line going for it in ethnic foods with its Chun King dinners and Patio Mexican foods. ''Mexican and Oriental are in,'' says George Domolky at Fidelity.

Benihana of Tokyo Inc., the Japanese restaurant chain based in Miami, is counting on this. In June, New York supermarkets will begin carrying its four new entrees - hibachi rice with shrimp, noodles with beef, sirloin pepper steak, and sweet and sour chicken.

''Five years ago we sold the Benihana knife set and made over $2 million in four months,'' says Rocky Aoki, president of Benihana. The Benihana name and taste will sell these products too, he insists. Mr. Aoki says the test supermarkets in New York went through a seven-day supply of the products in two days. He adds that the company hopes to go nationwide with the product.

Aoki says another thing going for his products is that a lot of the food is naturally low in calorie content. ''You never see fat people in Japan. We have the right kind of diet.''

''I think that everyone is nutritionally oriented without really being a mathematician on it,'' says Mr. Biggar, Stouffer's chief executive. It took Stouffer, which aims at the high end of the market, five years to develop its ''under 300 calories'' Lean Cuisine brand, Biggar says. ''We were planning boldly,'' but even then the company didn't predict within 50 percent of present demand. Biggar says that with dishes like Glazed Chicken, Oriental Scallops, and Zucchini Lasagna, Lean Cuisine has satisfied consumer demand for low-cal foods and for ''upscale and unusual'' dishes.

With more companies entering this upscale market, and also considering adding a low-cal line, competition in supermarket freezers will be sizzling. Because freezer space is limited and costly for a retailer to add, some executives say market growth for one company will have to come at the expense of other, weak-selling products. Any manufacturer without a good distribution system, a guarantee that the product is there for good, a broad product line, and a determined sales force will have trouble keeping up.

On the other hand, executives see growth ahead for the industry as a whole. ''If frozen foods as a group begin to make more profits for the retailers, then they will convert dry space to frozen,'' says Stouffer's Mr. Biggar.

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