Lunch punch

by Eric Schroeder
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While remaining the No. 1 food eaten at lunch, homemade sandwiches, are facing increased competition for share of stomach — in some cases, the competition is getting "heated."

According to The NPD Group’s 21st Annual Eating Patterns in America report released late in 2006, 36% of all lunches served in-home included a sandwich, a slow decline from 1990, when 45% of all in-home lunches included a sandwich.

Today, more consumers are bringing lunches home from restaurants, according to The NPD Group. In 2006, the average American brought home a record high 13 lunches from restaurants, up from the average of 8 lunches that prevailed during 1990.

"I think we’re saying, ‘Let the restaurant operator worry about having fresh bread, fresh tomatoes, fresh lettuce and fresh meat," said Harry Balzer, vice-president of The NPD Group. "While the frequency is still low, this is a reflection of a bigger issue — How do we make fresh foods easier?"

Contributing to the decline in sandwiches has been rapid growth in the success of curbside takeout, an option where consumers may call in lunchtime orders and pick them up. In many cases these meals are taken home, but there is no question they deliver on consumers’ need for convenience — or that they are cutting into consumption of homemade sandwiches.

Success of salads

Perhaps the biggest challenger to sandwiches’ place as the main lunchtime player is salads.

While full-service casual dining restaurants stand as the leading category as a resource for salads, a number of different outlets are getting into the act. Quick-service restaurants and quick-casual restaurants both have become outlets for salads, boosted by the restaurants’ efforts to improve and promote salads.

"At lunch, consumers are frequently focused on convenience, but still want high quality at a lower price," said Darren Tristano, executive vice-president of information services at Technomic, a research and consulting organization for the food industry. "The quick-service players have been highly successful in delivering on that formula."

He added that quick-casual restaurants are facing pressure to create new signature salad dishes while keeping prices competitive. Currently, consumers are keen to ethnic trends, particularly those with a focus on southwest, Asian and Mediterranean flavors — a shift from Cajun and buffalo flavors that used to be popular.

Mr. Tristano noted several reasons salads have performed well during the lunch hour, including good quality, a price point that has been better than expected, and the highly customizable nature of many products.

"Salad has really come across as being healthy and customizable," he said. "You can have it your way."

Since it first introduced its Premium Salad program in 2003, McDonald’s Corp. said customers have purchased more than 500 million salads, providing an alternative dining option for consumers who may otherwise select a sandwich or hamburger.

In April, McDonald’s launched a Southwest Salad featuring oven-roasted tomatoes and poblano peppers.

"The Southwest Salad is inspired by the authentic tastes of chili and lime flavors found in traditional southwest cooking," said Dan Coudreaut, McDonald’s executive chef and Southwest Salad innovator.

Los Angeles-based Organic to Go, the nation’s first casual cafe to be certified as an organic retailer, also recognizes the growth of salads, and introduced a range of options as part of its lunch menu. Cucumber, tomato and feta salad; Cantonese chicken salad; and tofu salad are a few of the restaurant’s latest introductions. The newest addition to the line is epic harvest salad, which consists of grapes, toasted walnuts, apples and blue cheese tossed with mixed greens and citrus vinaigrette dressing.

But restaurants aren’t the only ones pushing salads as a lunchtime meal. A few of the nation’s largest food companies have introduced salad entrees as an alternative to sandwiches.

Sara Lee Food & Beverage in late April introduced a line of salad entrees under the Hillshire Farm name. Available in four varieties — chicken Caesar, turkey and ham chef, chicken and bacon club, and turkey and cranberries with ham julienne — Hillshire Farm Entrée Salads have a longer shelf life than most ready-made salads because they include every ingredient except lettuce, Sara Lee said.

The salads include individually-packaged ingredients stored in a re-closable plastic container.

"We took a step back and looked at a lot of different data and products," Tim Roush, vice-president of Hillshire Farm, said in explaining the company’s decision to launch the new salad line. "Salads have been an increasing trend for a long time — we’re trying to take advantage of that."

Mr. Roush said the launch of the salad entrees follows a recently implemented advertising campaign at Hillshire Farm, entitled "Go Meat!" The campaign encourages people to "unleash the meat enthusiast" in themselves by choosing foods that offer meats. In launching Entrée Salads, Hillshire Farm hopes to attract this audience.

"We identified women who are moms but really view meat as the center of the meal, and as being important from a nutrition, filling and taste standpoint," Mr. Roush said. He added that the meat in the salad kit really sets it apart and makes it an entree.

"It fits right into everything we’re doing right now," he said.

In March, Irene Rosenfeld, chairman and chief executive officer of Kraft Foods, earmarked prepared salads as a category the company hopes to grow in as it lays out its future strategy.

She said Kraft would expand its reach to the produce departments of grocery stores with the introduction of Fresh Creations, a packaged salad line currently being tested in select markets. The line uses a proprietary packaging technology and consists of Oscar Mayer meats, Kraft’s cheeses and salad dressings. The goal is to compete with deli and restaurant take-out salads often consumed during the lunch hour.

"Prepared salads are one of the 10 fastest-growing categories in North America, growing at 19% annually," Ms. Rosenfeld said. "We’re taking our portfolio to a whole new section of the store — the produce section. It’s highly incremental volume in a totally new category and it’s done in a way that only Kraft can do."

Competition "heats" up

Another item looking to take a slice out of the lunchtime eating occasion is "hot" meals.

Combining the popularity of sandwiches as a lunchtime option with consumers demand for convenience and hot food, Oscar Mayer, a division of Kraft Foods Inc., has introduced Deli Creations Hot Sandwich Melts.

The hot sandwiches are available in five varieties — oven roasted ham and cheddar, honey ham and Swiss cheese, turkey Monterey, turkey and cheddar with Dijon mustard and steakhouse cheddar — and feature a microwavable tray that may be heated in 60 seconds.

In introducing the product, Kraft referred to a survey done in March by Impulse Research Corp. that showed approximately 70% of Americans work straight through lunch or only spend 5 to 10 minutes eating. Of those surveyed, nearly two-thirds said they typically eat a cold lunch they considered to be "bland, boring or completely and utterly forgettable," Kraft said. More than three-fourths of Americans surveyed by Impulse said a hot lunch is impossible due to lack of time, cost and inconvenience. It is this segment of the population Kraft believes it can capture with the new hot deli sandwiches.

"As we looked at the state of the lunch hour, we found many Americans were looking for convenient ways to free themselves of brown bag boredom and enjoy a hot lunch," said Chris Carlisle, senior brand manager for Oscar Mayer. "So, we set out to create an innovative new product to satisfy America’s love for deli meats in a more convenient way."

Another way the competition has "heated" up has been the introduction of improved toasters at many quick-casual restaurant chains such as Quiznos and Subway, said Mr. Tristano of Technomic.

"Whether you are diabetic or on a low-carb diet, you still eat bread," Mr. Tristano said. "The introduction of artisan bread has improved texture, and toasting methods have improved dramatically, giving sandwiches a different appeal."

He said toasted sandwiches, along with traditional dinner entrees being innovated toward lunch time and breakfast as lunch items, will be trends to watch going forward.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, May 29, 2007, starting on Page 28. Click here to search that archive.

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