The biggest market for these meals, Keller said, is the brown-bag luncher. "It is an incredibly large number and growing -- over 35% of all Americans brown-bag at one point and the average income of these brown-baggers is over $30,000." The portability and speed of preparation of these new shelf-stable products should be appealing to the on-the-go luncher, Keller said.
However, to appeal to consumers, manufacturers must first address a major marketing problem. To encourage sales, the products have been packaged to resemble frozen entrees, not canned goods. But, as a result, a consumer handling a warm package might associate these products with thawed and spoiled frozen meals that they have been warned for years not to eat. Hormel hopes to convince consumers otherwise with its 1990 $20 million advertising campaign.
But Hormel may find itself at another disadvantage as frozen-food companies rush to introduce new, healthier entrees. Top Shelf's Oriental pepper steak had the same amount of calories as the same entree by Healthy Choice, a new frozen product from ConAgra Inc, designed for the cholesterol and sodium conscious. But Top Shelf's Oriental pepper steak contained 10 grams of fat and 1,700 milligrams of sodium; Healthy Choice had six grams of fat and 530 milligrams of sodium.
Even if the shelf-stable and refrigerated products can overcome their seemingly monumental problems and become the next revolution in food technology, it's doubtful that the frozen-food industry will come to a chilling halt.
As Charles Weiss, a principal of Weston Group Inc., a management consulting group that advises large food companies, noted: "Feeding the American public is a big enough job that there's probably room for all of these basic systems to work."