- Even kids: The littlest tyke can handle the new Pepsi, as a TV spot shows; Kraft Cubes make it simple, too. ON THE RUN: MARKETERS RUSH TO FILL THE BELLIES OF TODAY'S BUSY CONSUMERS

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Irene Mosca and her family eat too much takeout, in her opinion.

"Three times a week on a good week and on a bad week, five," confesses the customer service supervisor for a New Jersey healthcare company and the mother of a toddler.

But, she says, "By the time I pick up my daughter from daycare, it's 7 p.m. and I'm not cooking."

With an increasing number of Americans eating their meals away from home -- and those who gather around the family table often tucking into ready-made entrees -- restaurant and package food marketers are putting new spins on convenience.

Eager to tap the eat-on-the-run trend, marketers have been launching a range of new products and initiatives, from Oscar Mayer pre-cooked bacon to a spill-proof cup from Pepsi-Cola Co. and more-moist biscuits from Burger King Corp., the last two targeted to those who eat and drink in their cars and don't want to spill soda or get crumbs in their laps.

Pizza chain Papa John's International is testing drive-up windows at new outlets so customers can pick up their pizza without having to leave their cars. Kraft Foods is marketing already-cubed hunks of cheddar cheese, and Sara Lee's Hygrade Foods unit has created Ball Park Singles, individually wrapped hot dogs that can be prepared in 20 seconds in a microwave.

REACHING ANOTHER LEVEL

"Convenience has been taken to another level," said Mitchell Pinheiro, a restaurant and food analyst for Janney Montgomery Scott, Philadelphia.

And speed limit.

Kim Miller, director-public relations, Burger King, said 60% of the chain's customers now eat in their cars. "There's a whole new culture of dashboard dining. It has become the third place where people eat. That 4-inch area on your dashboard and your seat next to you have become your placemat," she said. "It is important that food be packaged and actually prepared to meet that really narrow area."

Ease of packaging and preparation has become a mantra for Stephanie Williams, director of the Kraft Kitchens, who has tracked consumer food trends for the company for 29 years.

"The meaning of convenience is changing faster than it did years ago," she said.

WHY CONVENIENCE?

The drive for more convenience has been sparked by both an increase of women in the workforce (leaving more latchkey kids to prepare their own meals), and a move away from three squares a day.

Ms. Williams cited a Roper study that showed only 24% of consumers eat three meals a day, and 61% eat either two or three meals augmented by snacks. And although some 70% of meals are still made at home, it's the way they're made that's changed, she noted.

"In the 1950s or '60s, it would take an hour-and-a-half to make a meal," she said. Today, one of the most popular recipes on Kraft's Web site is a chicken and rice dish with a total preparation time of 15 minutes.

That's the kind of convenience embraced by shoppers like Mr. Mosca, who would love to cook -- if she could find the time. Without it, "I want something you boil 2 minutes in water and it's done," she said.

COOKING SKILLS LACKING

Unlike Ms. Mosca, however, the convenience-food generation is growing up without basic cooking skills. Kraft has addressed the problem by simplifying cooking terms universally understood years ago, when home economics was a required subject and mothers slaved at the stove most of the day.

In its recipes, for instance, Kraft has changed the word "truss" to "close the opening of the bird," while "dredge" has been abandoned in favor of "coat with," Ms. Williams said.

Making fast-food even faster, some restaurant companies are focusing on improving their drive-through service, which now accounts for more than 50% of burger chain sales, according to several leading fast-food chains. At Tricon Global Restaurants' Taco Bell unit, 66% of sales are from the drive-through window, a spokeswoman said, adding that the chain reformulated its taco shells so they only crack around where a customers takes a bite.

CHIHUAHUA'S BACK

This month, Taco Bell launched an outdoor ad campaign with its popular chihuahua from TBWA Chiat/Day, Venice, Calif., touting a new cup designed to fit all car cupholders.

Like Taco Bell, others are reformulating existing products and introducing new ones to accommodate dashboard dining, with the goal of most chains to fill an order in 3 minutes.

"When our drive-through times go down, our sales go up," a McDonald's Corp. operations executive said, noting that savvy burger customers know which McDonald's in a given area has the fastest service. "If they see five cars and know service is fast there, they'll still get in that line."

To improve accuracy, Burger King is adding new order confirmation screens to all 507 company-owned stores. A customer can see their order listed as the employee enters it into the computer and can correct mistakes on the spot.

RIGHT-TURN RESTAURANTS

Cathy Whelan Molloy, VP-marketing at Tim Hortons, the 1,600-unit Canadian doughnut chain owned by Wendy's International, said convenience is so important to fast-food customers that if they can turn right into a restaurant rather than make a left for one across the street, they will select the one on the right.

In the supermarket aisle, convenience once meant a can of College Inn broth to start a gravy or a package of frozen vegetables to go with a home-cooked roast. Now, even when the shrinking number of consumers who can cook actually do so, they look for step-savers June Cleaver would never have dreamed of, such as packaged salads, pre-cubed cheese and pre-carved chicken breasts.

In fact, an ad for Perdue Farms' Short Cuts is themed, "We've just taken all the adventure out of cooking."

According to a May survey for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, one in four respondents said they never have the ingredients on hand for a home-cooked meal.

FAST AND CONVENIENT

Fast and convenient have become criteria for buying, with 48% of consumers surveyed saying easy preparation is "very important" when making choices.

That may explain the explosive popularity of fresh-cut vegetables, which rose from $5 billion in sales in 1994 to a projected $19 billion by the year 2003, according to the Produce Marketing Association. The figure, accounting for sales at retail and in foodservice, includes ready-made salads and pre-cut, pre-sliced vegetables such as carrots and celery.

Such shortcuts are more necessary than ever. Indeed, Kraft CEO Robert Eckert has said 60% of women work, and in Kraft's target audience of women ages 35 to 44, a full 77% are in the workplace and looking for quick meal solutions at home.

But attracting them is harder now because they're spending less time grocery shopping. Consumers spend only 24 minutes in the supermarket, according to Kraft, down 25% from five years ago. And during that brief time, consumers are visually scanning an astounding 917 items a minute, said Kraft.

ADD MEAT FOR A MEAL

To stand out in that fray, products are working to one-up each other on the convenience scale. Pillsbury has a big hit with its Green Giant Create-A-Meal frozen vegetables; consumers only need to add meat to have a full dinner. Before it exited the business by selling its Birds' Eye unit to Agrilink Foods a few weeks ago, Dean Foods was planning on raising the ante with a similar line that has chicken or meat already added.

But convenience isn't limited to foods -- beverges are entering the fray. Credit Pepsi-Cola with coming up what might be the ultimate in making it easier for the consumer, by testing in Dayton, Ohio, a 2-liter bottle with a special grip to make it easier to lift and pour.

"If you think about kids or older folks having trouble holding and pouring, [then] this solves the problem," said a spokesman.

Indeed, today's prepared foods appear to be about problem-solving as much as taste -- hence the industry's monicker of home meal solutions. Judging from consumers such as Ms. Mosca, they're going in the right direction.

Instead of Boston Market or Chinese, Ms. Mosca said she now often opts for takeout from Kings Super Markets, where she can buy a full entree and salad for $10 that can satisfy even her vegetarian husband and child.

Almost gratefully, she said, "There tend to be a lot more [prepared] choices out there now."

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