Two launches: Rice races to beat 90-sec prep time

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The billion-dollar rice category heats up this month with the simultaneous launch of two ready-to-serve lines from Uncle Ben's and Zatarain's that are ready in less than 90 seconds.

The rice-brand leaders are in a race to be first to market with the new technology that allows for quick heat-and-eat rice dishes, an innovation they hope brings new life to a category many consumers have abandoned in favor of more-convenient options. Sales of dry rice-which make up more than half the category-fell 2.9% to $533 million for the 52 weeks ended Nov. 30, according to Information Resources Inc.

According to a Midwest retail executive, the launch of Masterfoods USA's 90-second Uncle Ben's Ready Rice was stepped up from a regional to a national launch this month to compete with the January debut of McCormick & Co.'s 60-second Ready to Serve line from Zatarain's. New heat-and-eat Express versions of Rice-a-Roni and Pasta-Roni from PepsiCo's Quaker Foods & Beverages unit have been put on hold, the executive said, likely in response to the new quicker-cooking competitors.

spending to grow

Ready Rice, which includes five varieties of steam-in-pouch rice side dishes with flavors such as Roasted Chicken and Long Grain & Wild, is "about delivering ultra-convenience for the consumer at a time when she is as time-stressed as she's ever been," said Bryan Crowley, senior brand manager for Uncle Ben's.

Mr. Crowley believes that the line will "grow the category significantly." In fact, he said, Masterfoods expects Ready Rice to be as successful as Uncle Ben's frozen Rice Bowls, which doubled sales of the brand. Uncle Ben's dry rice fell 5.2% to $82 million, while its dry rice mixes grew 1.9% to $65 million for the period ending Nov. 30, according to IRI.

Ad spending on rice, which totaled a mere $5 million for Uncle Ben's from January through August of 2003 according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR, is expected to grow to support Ready Rice, as well as the relaunch of Uncle Ben's Natural Select into a more convenient flavor-infused rice grain line, dubbed Flavorful. Ads for Flavorful began in November. TV ads for Ready Rice, from Omnicom Group's TBWA/Chiat/Day, Playa del Rey, Calif., will begin in spring.

Zatarain's New Orleans Style Rice will launch its standup pouches of ready-to-serve flavored rice mixes with a major TV blitz beginning in February from Peter A. Mayer Advertising, New Orleans.

"We see [the Ready to Serve technology] as having huge potential and applications because it offers unprecedented convenience in a category that has been viewed as less-than-convenient," said David Darragh, Zatarain's director-marketing.

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