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Reservations Not Required : O.C. Restaurant Chains Serve Up Their Fare at Markets

June 11, 1996|GREG JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IRVINE — Where to eat dinner used to be a relatively simple choice: Either head to the grocery store to pick up the fixings or make tracks to a restaurant.

But the line between groceries and eateries is blurring as more restaurants try to build revenue by selling their most popular menu items in grocery stores.

Claim Jumper has become one of the most recent restaurateurs to walk down the grocery aisle, introducing a line of frozen entrees that ranges from baby back pork ribs to Buffalo-style chicken wings.

"We know, from 19 years of talking to our customers, what people want to eat," said Kenneth W. Gerdau, general manager of Claim Jumper Restaurants' new retail food division. "We're going to take directly from our menu what sells best--what kids and grown-ups tell us that they want to buy."

But as the Irvine-based company hustles to ring up sales at the checkout counter, it will find plenty of company.

Wolfgang Puck Food Co., for example, is selling frozen entrees through Midwestern supermarkets. Taco Bell Corp. has been selling Mexican-style foods for years, and Cheesecake Factory Inc. recently introduced its white chocolate raspberry truffle cheesecake at Price/Costco stores in Eastern states.

Restaurants are crossing over to supermarkets because they want a bigger bite of what marketing gurus call the "home meal replacement business." Translated, that means providing attractive alternatives for harried consumers who now spend $855 million daily on food prepared away from home rather than in their own kitchens.

"Ten years ago when you wanted spaghetti sauce, you bought canned tomatoes, paste and you went to work," said Atlanta-based food industry consultant Ira Blumenthal. "Now you buy Olive Garden's sauce and the spouse says, 'Great sauce, honey.' "

Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based consulting firm, reports that consumers now spend slightly more than half of their meal budget on food that's prepared away from home--a decided contrast to just a decade ago when most Americans spent more in grocery stores.

"Nobody cooks from scratch anymore," said Pat Quarles, spokeswoman for Omaha-based Conagra Frozen Foods, which produces the Marie Callender's Restaurants' brand of frozen dinner entrees. "Most people look at cooking as opening a box and adding milk or eggs."

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Faced with flat and stagnant sales, grocers are courting shoppers with in-store eateries and delis that serve ready-to-eat food. And they're also shopping around for new brand names that will entice consumers, Technomic Executive Vice President Bob Goldin said.

Industry consultants credit restaurant operators with using savvy marketing and advertising campaigns to tout their brands as better-tasting alternatives to traditional supermarket labels.

"Restaurant brand names are so strong that they're spilling over into the supermarket," Goldin said. "What you have now are groups of restaurant names which . . . have become the new brand names."

Restaurants that made the switch years ago say it can be a profitable move.

Columbus-based White Castle Systems Inc. now generates $40 million from grocery store sales of its brownie-sized burgers. The privately held burger chain entered the retail arena a decade ago--after years of filling mail-order requests from loyal customers across the country.

Midwesterners know White Castle as a restaurant chain, but "to a lot of people outside of the Midwest and East, we're a grocery-store brand," said Vicki Steinbrook, marketing manager for White Castle Distributing Inc. "And that's just fine with us."

Marie Callender's Restaurants, which started selling its corn bread a decade ago, now sells a line of frozen entrees through grocery stores. The entrees are manufactured by Conagra Inc. of Omaha.

Conagra, which also produces the Healthy Choice, Morton's and La Choy frozen-food lines, views the Callender's fare as "a welcome premium addition to our line," spokeswoman Pat Quarles said.

"People are not going to buy a Healthy Choice item every time, so we're pleased to be able to offer a satisfying line like Marie Callender's. It's food that tastes like what your mother would have cooked."

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Restaurant operators say they simply are responding to their customers.

"For years people have been asking if they can buy our sauces and dressings," said Linda Candioty, executive vice president at the Cheesecake Factory Inc. in Calabasas. "Our guests want those things."

The Cheesecake Factory sells salad dressings, croutons and other items at its restaurants, but, so far, only a handful of its cheesecakes are sold, and only through warehouse-style stores.

"We're concentrating on our restaurant business, but grocery store sales are indeed an avenue for us to pursue later on," Candioty said. "There's tremendous consumer interest in having us bottle or package other items from our menu."

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