ELMWOOD PARK, N.J. — Dr. Praeger’s Sensible Foods began as a frozen gefilte fish company acquired by a pair of heart surgeons in 1992. Today, the brand is a leader in the vegetarian, vegan and kosher frozen food categories, offering a portfolio of veggie burgers, fish fillets, hash browns and potato cakes with distribution in most major supermarkets nationwide.
|Larry Praeger, c.e.o. of Dr. Praeger's|
“We’ve seen some really nice double-digit growth, high-20s growth over the past two years, and this year we’re expecting mid-30s,” said Larry Praeger, chief executive officer and son of co-founder Dr. Peter Praeger, M.D.
Some of that success may be owed to recent additions to the company’s sales and marketing teams, Mr. Praeger said.
“By putting on some great sales reps and having the marketing team to support them, we’ve really been able to open up a lot more doors,” he said in an interview with Food Business News. “A lot of it is low-hanging fruit and getting out there and getting more doors, and the other thing is actually increasing our turns on shelf because we’re able to focus a bit more with the marketing department and work closely with different supermarket chains to work with their marketing teams to get our message across to their consumers.”
Beyond that, the company has remained true to its core values in using simple, whole ingredients while innovating with trending flavors. Newer products include a Korean Bibimbap veggie burger, a gluten-free heirloom bean veggie burger, and a gluten-free mushroom risotto veggie burger.
“We’re close to New York City, so we are able to see what’s cutting edge in the restaurant space, and we can take what they’re doing there and try to bring it into our world and try to make it something that will fit more in the Dr. Praeger’s mold,” Mr. Praeger said. “Meaning, it’s going to be more healthful, potentially less sodium and less fat, and make it in a way that’s convenient so you don’t have to go to a restaurant to eat it or be an incredible chef to recreate it.”
Earlier this year the company unveiled brand refresh, having invested $1 million to update the packaging, logo and web site.
“You look at these emerging brands, and they all have, generally speaking, relevant, focused packaging to appeal to the next generation of health-conscious consumers,” Mr. Praeger said. “We really wanted to bring that home with our package and have our product offerings reflect that.”
Read on for more insights from the c.e.o. of Dr. Praeger’s.
Food Business News: How has this brand evolved over the past 22 years?
Larry Praeger: When my dad had come into the company (which at the time was Ungar’s Heimeshe Gefilte Fish Co.), I think the first thing he did was realize there is really no great way to actually have a business that’s based on frozen gefilte fish. It’s not a huge market.
So the first thing they did when they came together, they leveraged the fact that he was a heart surgeon, and they really wanted to create products that make sense. If you go back 22 years (when the company became what it is known as today) and think about the landscape then versus now, people were working just as hard back then, but the convenient options that were also healthful for you were few and far between.
There were patients coming to them who said, “I just had heart surgery. Now what do I do? I’m still just as busy, but how do I eat healthy things?”
That’s really how Dr. Praeger’s Sensible Foods came about. It was, “How do we create items that are good for you, that taste good, that you’re going to want to eat and that you can cook up conveniently?” That was what was on trend back then.
Has the brand responded to various health fads over the years?
Mr. Praeger: We really honestly have remained true to who we are for 22 years. Maybe we were ahead of the trend then, but we’ve always believed coming out with items that people want to eat that taste good and are good for you is the right way to do it.
When you go back to our California veggie burger 22 years ago, it was the same thing: carrots, corn, spinach, broccoli, really just vegetables. And those haven’t changed in 22 years. If there’s anything we’ve gotten into, it’s that we have begun to offer in the past few years gluten-free offerings. That’s obviously a trend that seems to have stuck around.
Has the California veggie burger recipe really not changed in 22 years?
Mr. Praeger: We’ve modified it very slightly. Originally we had egg whites at one point, awhile back, and we made the decision to make it vegan, so that’s one change we’ve made over the years.
I don’t want to say overwhelmingly our consumers were clamoring for it, but it was definitely something we heard a lot about, and if we can make it better and make it appeal to more people without losing our core focus on our items and it makes sense, then we’ll do it.
You recently began selling veggie burgers at White Castle. Does food service represent a bigger opportunity for the company?
Mr. Praeger: White Castle really wanted to partner with us and work with us to bring that to life. It has been a successful platform for them.
We’re definitely seeing interest from restaurants. Not only for our product, but they are coming to us and wanting us to create a veggie burger for them. Or they’ll bring us a recipe, and we’ll work with them to make sure we can deliver exactly what they need.
In the food service world, you have to be cognizant of the fact they may have different types of cooking equipment or they could have 2,000 stores. You really have to make it work in their environment and distribution channel. As long as it makes sense and that we can come up with something we can make here, we’re open to those opportunities.
We have a nice facility here in Elmwood Park, N.J. It’s about 90,000 square feet. We’re manufacturing basically everything we sell, and we have some capacity here. We are open to new items as long as it makes sense.
Do you see the brand expanding into new product categories beyond frozen?
Mr. Praeger: We do. We talk about it a lot in our new product development meetings. We haven’t made any definitive decisions to do that. It’s on our minds, and we think the Dr. Praeger’s brand will be well received in other areas… but I think there is really so much to do in frozen. And I think that became obvious at the beginning of last year when we had some of those conversations: “What’s the next wave of innovation for Dr. Praeger’s?” And the next thing we did was launch 11 new items in frozen.
Mr. Praeger: We’re looking to launch another burger or two. Potentially one of the burgers will have a little more protein… That’s one of the things we’re working on. Some of the items will be in frozen. We haven’t identified all of those; there are a lot of things in the works but nothing that’s really flushed out yet.
The fact that we’re manufacturing and that 99.9% of our products are not co-packed gives us the opportunity to stay ahead of the trends instead of relying on someone else’s facility to give us some time to actually run a product, which can take multiple trials to really get it in the right way, especially as you’re scaling up. I think that’s given us a big advantage.If we see something out there that we think is important, we get on it very quickly and are able to test it in our facilities very quickly. No one’s going to let you do that. That’s given us a nice competitive advantage, where a lot of the emerging brands are co-packed.