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Trendwatch: 10 Restaurants In Your Grocery Aisle

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From frozen White Castle cheeseburgers to boxed IHOP breakfast pastries, restaurant-branded "grocerant" products are no fast fad.

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TV dinners aren't what they used to be. What Swanson started with a simple frozen chicken pot pie in 1950 has metastasized into a whole hog industry that continues to eat up increasing amounts of supermarket shelf space. Most recently to join the heat n' eat revolution are restaurant franchises that lift customer favorites directly from their menus and package them into convenient microwavable meals available in your local freezer aisle.

Restaurant-branded "grocerant" products are no fad, according to Steven Johnson, "Grocerant Guru" at Tacoma-based Foodservice Solutions. Once a restaurant brand has established a level of trust with customers, it will draw sales in these "alternative points of distribution" (including groceries, convenience stores, drug stores and even dollar stores) and are not only options consumers desire, but now expect. "For brand marketers and consumers, it is simply a dream come true," says Johnson. "Consumers are rewarding the brands for innovation in new products and product placement."

A brand's frozen version of its freshly-served restaurant counterpart may suffer in terms of taste, but it's a compromise customers are willing to accept for the convenience they provide. "Restaurateurs have conducted extensive research on consumers and [specifically] 'their' consumer," says Johnson. "They know just how time starved and overworked consumers are and the grocerant niche helps fill that need set."

Long gone are the days of uninspired Hungry Man Salisbury steak with a side of corn. Restaurant-branded ready-to-eat grocerant products are here to stay with the future promising even more options. Food lines will begin to bundle meal components in a "mix and match game" in which meat and pasta entrees can be paired with a choice of sides and sauces. In the meantime, scroll down for a sample of what's cooking today...in our microwaves.



Minyanville
IHOP
Look out Bob Evans, there's a new restaurant-branded breakfast in town. The pancake franchise has launched a new line of grocerant products available exclusively at Walmart (WMT) called "IHOP at Home." Items include four choices of french toast stuffed pastries, a griddle and sausage wrap and three varieties of omelet crispers (filled with combinations of potatoes, bacon, sausage and cheddar cheese). Gus Valen, the CEO of the Valen Group, the licensing agency which developed the retail market strategy for IHOP says, "...customers might take little time to relate with these frozen food items as the items are not available in the regular IHOP menu, but they will surely start relishing them soon as they come across their great taste."

Sample Product: French Toast Stuffed Pastries
Approximate price: $3
Sample review: "They consist of a slightly sweet, crispy dough that, when bitten into, yields a sauce that looks like the end result of a Strawberry Shortcake gang-related stab wound. The sauce, which appears to be the bulk of the pastry in the photo, only occupies a scant third of the midsection. It congeals after cooling and has a mild, sweet taste when isolated from the pastry -- very creamy and fruity, but when eaten together, is really buried in the fried dough flavors." (source: Foodette-reviews.blogspot.com)
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TONY ROMA'S
The American casual theme rib joint and self-proclaimed "pioneer of baby back ribs," with 200 retail locations in nearly three dozen countries from Tokyo to Madrid, boasts a supermarket line of prepackaged frozen meals. In addition to bottles of the trademark barbecue sauce, at home diners can heat and serve a variety of Tony Roma's branded pig products like seasoned pork rib bites, spare ribs and, of course, baby back ribs.

Sample product: Ribs Baby Back Loin with Tony Roma's Original BBQ Sauce 24 oz.
Approximate price: $10
Sample review: "I was very skeptical about buying precooked ribs at the supermarket and online. My first experience was from a shopping network and the ribs were terrible. The Tony Roma ribs at Walmart were as if I was at the restaurant. The sauce was great as was the pork. 5 Star all the way." (Source: Walmart.com)
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WHITE CASTLE
Fans of the tiny square sliders needn't worry about having to find the restaurant in order to get their fix after a marijuana binge. In fact, now the convenience store where Harold and Kumar stopped to get directions to White Castle would actually carry their munchie of choice. Sure, the nuked version is missing the signature pickle and ketchup but that's a fair trade-off for avoiding arrest or having your car stolen by an Ecstasy-addled Neil Patrick Harris.

Sample product: White Castle Frozen Hamburgers
Approximate price: $5.50 per 6-count box
Sample review: "They're small, but they're good. I ate two as a snack and really loved the flavor and how easy they were to cook. They microwaved in about a minute, right in the little cellophane bag...." (Source: Viewpoints.com)
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HOOTERS
Apparently the old joke about men claiming to patronize Hooters for the wings (just like they read Playboy for the articles) is actually true. The "delightfully tacky, yet unrefined" restaurant chain has produced such a loyal customer base that they're skipping the eye candy and going straight for the grub...at the supermarket. Packages of Hooters hot wings and Buffalo style chicken strips are available in your grocer's freezer and bottles of hot sauce are on the shelf. Go figure.


Sample product: The Original Hooters Hot Wing Sauce, 12 oz.
Approximate price: $13
Sample review: "Let's start with the sauce in the jar. It's bright orange and has an extremely pasty consistency. Don't bother tasting it straight....You'll get the wrong impression... Something happens when you heat it up, though. There's a transformation that turns the Hooters Hot Sauce into Super Hooters. The paste melts down and turns a darker, richer, fiery orange color, and the ingredients come together in a culinary collision that creates the taste everyone seems to be raving about." (Insanekitchen.com)
Minyanville
T.G.I. FRIDAYS
A force to be reckoned with in the frozen food isle, the T.G.I. Fridays franchise product line, licensed by H.J. Heinz Company (HNZ), claims dozens of appetizers like their famous loaded potato skins and skillet meals as well as salty snack foods, alcoholic beverages and mixers. The swingles who first met 40-plus years ago over a basket of mozzarella sticks at the first T.G.I. Fridays on the corner of First Avenue and 63rd Street on Manhattan's Upper East Side may now nuke their meal together at home as a married couple.

Sample product: T.G.I. Friday's Cheddar and Bacon Potato Skins
Approximate price: $5
Sample review: "The first time I ever had potato skins was at T.G.I. Friday's back when I was in college. My boss bought a platter of them, and I was hooked. Although I can make them now, and homemade are the best, I will always have a fond place in my heart for T.G.I. Friday's potato skins. It's kind of like McDonald's burgers. Not the best. But, there's just something about them." (Source: Viewpoints.com)
Minyanville
CALIFORNIA PIZZA KITCHEN
Restaurant supermarket fare has moved closer into gourmet franchise territory with relative newcomer California Pizza Kitchen (CPKI). The stone-fired-turned-home gas oven-baked-pizzas are available in crispy thin and self-rising crusts. Selection is limited to CPK mainstays like the original BBQ chicken and margherita pizzas, so if you're looking for some of the more exotic varieties like the habaneros carnitas pizza with slow-roasted pulled pork, you'll have to visit the fast-casual chain.

Sample product: California Pizza Kitchen Frozen Pizza, Margherita
Approximate price: $6 - $7
Sample review: "Though a frozen pizza can never approach a fresh, hot pizza from your local pizza place, these California Pizza Kitchen Pizzas come to top of the list for what it is. The toppings are nice...I particularly like the garlic chicken version, but most importantly, the crust makes the pizza. It's thin and cooks up very crispy, unlike other frozen pizzas. This makes it come a lot closer to a real pizza from a pizza place. On the downside, they're among the most expensive frozen pizza brands. On sale, they are usually about $6 per pizza, but I'm learning quickly, that they're just that much better!" (Source: Sazze.com)
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WOLFGANG PUCK
Disabuse yourself of fine dining notions. This isn't Spago. Think Wolfgang Puck Express or the casual Bistro. Only frozen or in a can. The world famous chef isn't offering up prepackaged slow roasted loin of young Sonoma lamb at the neighborhood Kroger (KR). Instead, shoppers can expect "rustica pizzas" like Puck's Mediterranean vegetable and chicken poblano as well as a selection of alleged restaurant-quality, USDA certified organic soups and broths.

Sample product: Wolfgang Puck Four Cheese Tomato and Pesto Pizza
Approximate price: $6
Sample review: "This crispy thin-crust pizza topped with pesto and a combination of mozzarella, fontina, Parmesan, and goat cheeses has incredibly complex flavor." (Source: redbookmag.com) "Although many pizzas claim to taste like delivery, this was one of the first pizzas I've tried that actually was of restaurant or delivery quality." (Source: Yahoo! Contributor Network)
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BOSTON MARKET
For over a dozen years, Boston Market has been "giving time back to busy people" with retail selections of its branded home-style American comfort food. Produced by H.J. Heinz Company, these ready-to-nuke meals are now available in 1,300 supermarkets nationwide. Offering old standbys like Salisbury steak, chicken pot pie and meatloaf, they may be the closest cousin to the original TV dinners. But if you want Boston Market's specialty, rotisserie chicken, it'll be a schlep to the drive thru.

Sample product: Boston Market's Turkey Medallions in a Cranberry Relish
Approximate price: $4
Sample review: "While I have always been a side-dish favoritist, the turkey medallions are not to be ignored here. Well, turkey is turkey but these were nice sized pieces of white meat without any of the nastier chewy bits. The turkey maintained a nice poultryish [sic] texture and handled the microwave process well without becoming too chewy. But it was really the nice coating of cranberry relish that shined. The cranberry brings tartness while the pineapple flavor and raisins bring sweetness." (Heateatreview.com)
Minyanville
P.F. CHANG'S CHINA BISTRO
Last year, P.F. Chang's China Bistro (PFCB), the American-Chinese fusion franchise, unveiled its "Home Menu" of frozen meals sold by Unilever (UN). A step up from your traditional microwave dinner, the meals like General Chang's chicken, beef with broccoli and shrimp lo mein are meant to be heated in a skillet with at least two steps to the cooking process. The only things missing are the 11-foot horse statues greeting you in front of the grocery freezer door.

Sample product: P.F. Chang's Home Menu: Orange Chicken
Approximate price: $9
Sample review: "Surprisingly tasty! Let's be real here – at $9 a bag, this ain't no Ad Hoc at Home, but this was definitely much better than the standard cardboard-y frozen meal (remember Kid Cuisine? – yeah I try to forget too). Out of the eight flavors, I recommend the Orange Chicken – the chicken pieces were nice and tender and I liked the addition of the crispy water chestnuts and edamame." (Source: Financefoodie.com)
Minyanville
PANERA BREAD CO.
"We are fresh from the oven...We are a long lunch with an old friend. We are your weekday morning ritual." Panera (PNRA) is also a 40-ounce frozen tub of broccoli cheddar soup purchased at big box club retailers like BJ's Wholesale Club (BJ) and Costco (COST) and are meant to be zapped in the microwave and eaten at home -- and probably alone. It's also the ritual of picking up a container of red pepper and asiago Panera cheese dip, a laundry basket and a Pelican Brief DVD while shopping at Target (TGT).


Sample product:
Panera Bread Broccoli Cheddar Soup, 40 oz.
Approximate price: Around $9
Sample review: "It's not too bad. I feel it is almost blasphemy that I'm eating it out of anything other than a bread bowl though." (Source: Boardreader.)
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