Bite-Sized and Beyond

January 8, 2009
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Category Review: Memorable finger foods are a plus for retailers and consumers.





Rolling in Dough

In terms of flavor and ingredient trends, Bagel Bites and deep-fried veggies aren’t enough anymore - consumers increasingly are demanding more premium options from their frozen foods aisle. And just like their center-of-the-plate counterparts, frozen appetizers sold at retail take their culinary cues from the foodservice industry.

Koeman says his company, a supplier of private label appetizers, is experiencing very high demand for upscale frozen appetizers - a result, he says, of consumers choosing to entertain more in their homes. When consumers do this, they are more likely to serve appetizers they’ve had in restaurants and at catered banquets.

Plats du Chef specializes in appetizers that use phyllo dough as a carrier. The company’s version of the Greek favorite spanakopita is its best seller. Plats du Chef also offers mini quiches, phyllo purses filled with cranberries and brie cheese, and even hot dogs wrapped in phyllo dough.

“Hot dogs are surprising,” Koeman says. “It’s a product you’d think would just appeal to kids. But if you call something ‘pigs in a blanket,’ it’ll be the first thing to sell. We call it ‘franks in a blanket’ so it has a nicer ring to it.”

Koeman notes that run-of-the-mill frozen appetizers and snacks such as mozzarella sticks, pizza rolls and onion rings always will drive customer traffic to the frozen appetizers aisle, but premium products will attract first-time buyers.

“We’ve seen a tremendous growth in gourmet appetizers - hors d’oeuvres - and we believe it’s because what we’re offering is what consumers are looking for. Great taste and high quality, combined with a growing consumer trust for store brands,” Collias says.

Good Wives Hors d’oeuvres offers for private label a wide range of premium appetizers that are handcrafted in small batches. Products include shrimp saganaki phyllo flowers, spinach and artichoke tortilla crisps and pulled-pork potstickers, to name a few.

Koeman says that when most people think of premium appetizers, they typically consider the frozen kind to be of the highest quality. But this perception is starting to change.

“You’re seeing more fresh-prepared appetizers; I think that’s a trend that you might see a lot more of in the future - it should be considered,” he adds. “You could expect to see mini pies and tarts. You don’t usually think of fresh dips as appetizers, but [they belong] to this category.”

Such freshly prepared appetizers key into the convenience trend - a crucial element to the success of all appetizers, according to Mintel. Mintel reports that a convenience claim is important because appetizers also compete in other snack subcategories, as well as with frozen pizzas, frozen sandwiches and savory crackers - areas in which Mintel says consumers are prepared to spend more to make their lives a little easier. Although they are less desirable in the premium segment of the appetizer realm, microwaveable claims also are critical to the success of the rest of the category.

Promote From Within

The versatility of frozen appetizers also makes it easier for retailers to promote them. Because frozen appetizers are significantly more popular with shoppers around the holidays, Koeman says, retailers that include appetizers in holiday promotions should do well. Mintel notes that appetizers could realize better sales year round if retailers and manufacturers promote more diverse serving occasions such as barbecues and picnics. And because the appetizer category is becoming a growth area for vegetarian products, as Mintel notes, retailers might do well to emphasize this sector, or link the products to healthful eating campaigns.

“There are two things this category offers,” Koeman says, “uniqueness and a lot of profitability. Anytime you can take these products and promote them in the store, or end cap them, it’ll help a lot. Because, especially in the premium [segment], once [consumers] try them, they’ll make repeat purchases. The main strategy is to have trial of the product.”

Collias says one of the keys to successfully promoting store brand appetizers is having a quality product from the start.

“The best advice that we could give to someone sourcing new products is to look at quality and taste first,” Collias stresses. “Those aspects are the most important to the consumer, and [they determine] whether or not they’ll buy the product a second time, or suggest it to a friend. For promotion, in-store demos work really well, and positively influence buying decisions when customers are on the fence.”

And of course, the more attractive a product is, the easier it is to market and sell. Most standard frozen snacks and appetizers - everything from jalapeño poppers, mini pizzas, deep-fried mushrooms and more - are sold in rectangular cardboard boxes.

However, more premium products demand more sophisticated packaging. Koeman says most of Plats du Chef’s appetizers, including the spanakopita, are sold in cardboard boxes, with the product itself resting in ovenable aluminum trays. 

“We’re still not seeing much innovation in packaging these items. Sometimes it can be hard - these items can be fragile. They have to be packaged in a way that will protect them along the supply chain,” Koeman says.

Mintel reports that while the ethical packaging claim remains niche, it’s still seeing significant growth. Good Wives’ Collias says retailers should consider such a claim when sourcing their private label appetizers.

“The smaller the carbon footprint, the bigger the impact. Consumers and retailers are looking for packaging that is attractive, but also environmentally friendly. Recyclable packaging and packaging made from recycled materials represents a commitment on the retailer side, which is something that consumers are looking for. A retailer that is constantly improving their environmental impact is attractive to shoppers, and that adds to customer loyalty,” Collias notes. PLB

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