'MOM' TAKES ON GIANTS IN FOOD AISLE; FROZEN OUT?: UPSTART AIMS TO SUCCEED WHERE MAJOR MARKETERS HAVE FAILED

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Armed with an innovative product concept and steely determination, Fran Lent will walk into Dominick's Finer Foods in Chicago this week to convince buyers she will succeed where giants such as Tyson Foods have failed.

Ms. Lent is president of Fran's Healthy Helpings, a Burlingame, Calif.-based frozen kids meal marketer that bills itself as "Run by moms."

Started with $130,000 in seed money in 1995 by the ex-Del Monte executive, Ms. Lent's company outsources its production, has a total of five employees and less than $1 million in sales.

Yet, her Healthy Helpings kids meal line has won shelf space in seven states and 3,000 stores, with a customer list that reads like a retail Who's Who: Albertson's, Jewel Food Stores, King's Supermarkets, Kroger Co., Lucky Stores and Whole Foods.

BEATING THE ODDS

Winning trade acceptance in the freezer case, one of the hardest supermarket categories to crack because of competitive price wars and high slotting fees, is even more of a feat -- especially considering the odds.

According to product tracker Marketing Intelligence Service, there were 10,838 new products that attempted introduction in 1998; of those, 1,662 were aimed at the freezer case. The vast majority, some 80%, fail, estimates General Manager Tom Vierhile.

Not that that track record, or the downbeat advice of those who went before her, stopped Ms. Lent.

"I told Fran she was crazy. I said, 'There's no way you'll have enough money to buy your way into the freezer,' " said Joe D'Onofrio, chief financial officer of My Own Meals, a company that tried without success to market a shelf-stable kids meal beginning in the late 1980s.

"I would encourage anyone to pursue" a similar entrepreneurial course, said the relentlessly enthusiastic Ms. Lent, 42. "Of course, you have to know what you're doing."

The mother of two 6-year-old children, Ms. Lent started with a concept born of need -- fast, healthy frozen entrees with tot appeal.

STARTING WITH A SURVEY

After conducting a direct-mail survey of upper-income Bay area families with kids, she came up with the idea of meals for kids ages 2 to 8 that meet Food & Drug Administration standards to be considered healthy. The line as it stands today consists of five varieties with fun names and shapes: Lucky Ducky Chicken, Wacky Whale Pizza, Lovey Dovey Patty, Soccer-oni & Cheese and Twinkle Star Fish.

She enlisted many colleagues from prior employers, including Del Monte and Durkee brand spice marketer Specialty Brands, for help. Among them was Brian Eveslage, an associate creative director at McCann-Erickson Worldwide, San Francisco, who designed her package.

Along the way, she networked and found an invaluable board member, Dick Goodspeed, the retired CEO of the Vons Cos. supermarket chain.

"He believes in the concept and has been a great help with his influence," Ms. Lent said.

Another boost came from Judy Walker, her VP-sales who signed on in May 1998. Ms. Lent credits her with increasing Fran's Healthy Helpings' distribution from 300 to 3,000 stores in a year.

That's a rate frozen food executives doubt can be sustained without the financial resources to pay large shelf-placement fees to retailers.

"It's a huge challenge to try and get something going in a world dominated by giants," said Lyle Hubbard, president-CEO of frozen veggie-burger marketer Gardenburger and a former frozen food division head at Quaker Oats Co. "If you can't pay slotting, you have to beg your way on the shelf."

"I'm a pessimist when it comes to the freezer case," echoed Kathleen MacDonnell, a former Campbell Soup Co. executive who headed the company's Swanson frozen unit in the 1990s, after the launch of its Fun Feast kids line.

Fun Feast, now marketed by Campbell's Vlasic International spinoff, had $41.3 million in sales, according to Information Resources Inc., for the 52 weeks ended March 28, down 4.8%. The only other major competitor left in frozen kids meals after the early 1990s product boom is ConAgra's Kid Cuisine, with $94.3 million in sales, up 12.6% during that same period.

"If they are going to butt heads with ConAgra, they have to have very deep pockets," said Ms. MacDonnell, now president of Delimex, a marketer of Mexican frozen foods sold mainly to club stores. "And if ConAgra wanted, they could turn out a healthy meal pretty fast."

TYSON BOWED OUT

Another competitor who was in -- and out -- of frozen entrees for children is Tyson Foods, which folded its Looney Tunes line in the early '90s.

"It's like a dog chasing its tail," said Mark Willis, VP-retail marketing at Tyson. A start-up "can't pull together enough money to create product awareness through ads" if most of its funds are going to trade dollars.

Ms. Lent doesn't deny she pays slotting, but indicates what's paid isn't exorbitant.

"We understand slotting is a reality. We are clear upfront with retailers that we are trying to do something unusual and we tell them, 'We need your help.' "

While that hasn't been the experience of some companies that struggled to compete in frozen foods, such as My Own Meals (see story at left), at least one industry watcher said the trade is searching for new innovations, particularly ones that will lift glacial-growth categories such as frozen foods.

"There are retailers who still believe in the quality of a product," said Ken Harris, a consultant with Cannondale Associates. "I am absolutely convinced a small company can succeed, without boatloads of money to do it."

READY FOR CONSUMER PUSH

Fran's Healthy Helpings is now to the point it's trying some limited consumer marketing. Bridges Marketing Group, Walnut Creek, Calif., is the agency and is working on its first major direct-mail effort. It will start this fall, timed to the back-to-school season.

As for competition from Con-Agra, that doesn't unduly worry Ms. Lent, who disclosed that the food giant is now producing Fran's meals.

While that certainly wouldn't prevent it from underpricing Fran's, "we believe we're bringing a new consumer to the category," said Ms. Lent, adding that boosting frozen foods is in the best interest of ConAgra and Swanson.

Of course, it's not impossible that a major food company may look to buy Fran's if it succeeds.

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