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Supermarket GROCERY Business: Holidays on ice

It's a sign of the Times. And of the Tribune and the Journal-Constitution. Consumers are expected to use more frozen foods in their holiday recipes this year, thanks to a stepped- up public relations effort by the National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association. This fall the group's "Bring Us to Your Table! Freezer Favorites" trade campaign is being expanded to reach the public.

"We're sending out mat releases to all of the newspapers to put in their food day sections," said Nevin B. Montgomery, president and c.e.o. of the Harrisburg, Pa.-based NFRA. "These releases will talk about using frozen foods in a recipe, articles on frozen foods, etcetera."

The first campaign, dubbed "Back-to-School Fuel," is running now and features a nutritionist touting the benefits of a good before-school breakfast made with frozen foods. The "Holiday Secret Weapons" promotion targets frozen pre-made hors d'oeuvres and holiday dinners made with frozen ingredients, and will break in late fall.

Montgomery spoke to Progressive Grocer at a New York media luncheon where food editors of leading newspapers and women's and general interest magazines dined on a gourmet meal made entirely from frozen foods. The guest chef whipped up a feast from frozen cod, herbs, Brussels sprouts, baby carrots, turnips, rutabagas, Tater Tots, diced pepper and onion, and roll sausage for the main course, along with juice concentrate, phyllo dough, cherries, and blackberries for dessert.

"Frozen foods have a lot to offer," Montgomery told the assembled consumer press. "Frozen foods are something we would like you to include in your editorial to help your readers."

Priced below fresh

Scott Gerow, executive chef at ike, a trendy restaurant in New York's East Village, prepared the luncheon. He spent a week checking out local supermarket freezer cases for research. "Prices for frozen products are usually a third less than the fresh price," he said as he prepared Puree of Butternut Squash Soup with Sweet Corn, Chive & Seared Scallop. He also made Herb Roasted Codfish with Sausage-Potato Hash & Roasted Root Vegetables; and Warm Cherry & Blackberry Napoleon with Citrus Granita, made from individually quick-frozen fruits, and orange juice, limeade, and pink lemonade concentrate.

"I looked at the price per pound on the freezer case, and compared that to the yield you are going to get because there is such a high loss in yield coming from fresh product," Gerow said, citing fresh basil, peppers, and onions as examples. "You will find that frozen is a better product. You can't tell the difference, and it saves you an enormous amount of time and money."

Frozen foods are like having a sous-chef in the freezer. "With frozen foods, everything is done for you, and there is no waste involved. The dicing, chopping, slicing, squeezing, and sweetening are all done. That saves a lot of time and money," Gerow said.

Retailers should tout the stability frozen foods offer to their customers. "The product is always the same; the consistency doesn't change," Gerow said. "In January, strawberries are available, and you don't have to worry about the fluctuation of prices. It is the same product every time you open the bag or box. As soon as it is harvested it is flash-frozen and the freshness is locked in, and the quality is great."

That same mantra carries over to the frozen seafood case. "Everyone buys into the philosophy that fresh is better, but more often than not, a fresh piece of fish has been sitting on the dock, whereas a frozen piece of fish is often frozen on the boat just after it is caught," Gerow said. "Many people feel that you can't get the same results from a frozen piece of fish as fresh. But I have found that if you are treating the ingredients as if they were fresh, the end result is the same."

In fact, in the case of the butternut squash soup served at the luncheon, the sample made from frozen product was more vibrant in color and flavor because butternut squash is out of season in the summer. Gerow noted that restaurants and foodservice consume the bulk of frozen foods—65 percent—produced in the United States. "That means there are many fine restaurants and executive chefs like myself who are using these products. Even in some of the higher-end restaurants, the pastry chef doesn't have the time and energy to make puff pastry, so he'll use frozen phyllo dough," he said.

And as consumers seek to replicate dishes they have in restaurants and see in cookbooks and on TV cooking shows, retailers have an opportunity to increase the amount of frozen foods they sell. "People are following those recipes to a T. They want to re-create something, but they feel they don't have the skills, and they need a little bit of help," Gerow said. Frozen foods can help in that effort.
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