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Some might find it difficult to market a national frozen-food line based on a restaurant chain that isn't national-and without a consumer advertising budget to boot.

But not Larry Dinkin, who built the Marie Callendar brand into one so strong it was much sought after as an acquisition-and won last year by frozen-food giant ConAgra.

Mr. Dinkin, the 52-year-old founder of International Food Marketing, had successfully marketed frozen foods under the Benihana restaurant name when he discovered Marie Callendar in 1988. Along with former partners Rich Greenstein, 36, and Saul Chase, 49, Mr. Dinkin set out to do the same with the 150-outlet West Coast chain.

"We started with 13 [Marie Callendar] products with zero share," he says of the line now in national distribution. The products "number 40 and have done well in markets..... where [consumers] never heard of the restaurants."

A mere seven years after starting, Marie Callendar frozen foods' retail sales reached $214 million.

Mr. Dinkin attributes the brand's success in part to clever packaging and an efficient use of supermarket promotional dollars. Since the restaurant chain is known for quality, large portions and good value, Mr. Dinkin aimed at communicating those attributes on the packaging rather than in advertising.

He also used the package as a way to communicate directly with the consumer-a response card is contained within each. Hundreds of thousands, Mr. Dinkin says, have been returned.

"We used coupons, not TV or print" advertising, as the only other support "other than in-store promotions" for the brand, says Mr. Dinkin, now president of ConAgra's MC Retail Foods division. "We use our trade funds effectively to get exposure. The trade loves to have quality products to promote. They get a halo effect."

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