Athenians and Romans were some of the first to serve small plates of finger foods at banquets. These were supposed to aid in digestion and enhance the bond or friendship at the beginning of the meal. That's a long way from today's pizza puffs, but what remains is sharing and exploring a small dish with friends.
Alexia Foods Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y.
Pizza snacks not only can start the meal, but can be served at other times of the day. They're eaten by many teenagers as a snack that can deal with the hunger after a long day at school.
Pizza snacks are typically small bites of traditional flavors (pepperoni, cheese and tomato sauce) and are quick and easy to prepare (microwave). Served warm, they are sharable and filling.
Alexia Foods Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y., a privately held prepared foods company best known for Alexia frozen potatoes, thought the traditional pizza snack, while familiar, can be confining in its offerings. With many consumers wanting to recall or experience travel through food or wanting a more gourmet or healthier experience, there potentially is some vacant space in the category.
Understanding the marketplace
The frozen snack market has grown nearly 25 percent from 2000 to 2005 to a market size of about $2 billion, according to Research and Markets. This is still a small percent of the overall snack food market of $61 billion, according to MarketResearch.com.
The key brands within the frozen snack market are Nestle Hot Pockets with 28 percent of the category. Ruiz Foods' El Monterey brand has grown 73 percent over the past five years. The category includes players large and small: Amy's Kitchen, Cedarlane, Camino Real Foods, Chef America, ConAgra, General Mills/ Pillsbury (including Totino's), Heinz, Hormel, Kellogg, Luigino's, Pierre Foods, Pinnacle Foods, Sara Lee, Schwans, Simplot and White Castle.
Although there is a wide variety of products and competitors in this category, recent growth has been in stuffed sandwiches and Mexican and Asian cuisine, as well as some "better for you" products. This is a category that is not viewed as healthy. Using cuisine style and all natural ingredients/flavor as a means to signal "healthy" could allow a smaller company to stand out in the crowd.
Alexia Foods proclaims "100 percent all natural" on all its products because they don't need artificial flavors or preservatives. Many of the company's items are certified organic through Oregon Tilth. They emphasize the use of trans-free fats and healthy oils, such as olive and hi-oleic canola oils.
Plus, founder Alex Dzieduszycki was a New York chef who moved a small catering kitchen into the partnership that is Alexia Foods. So the insight of taking a frozen appetizer as ubiquitous as pizza snacks and creating two classic Italian style flavors (Pesto Chicken with Fresh Mozzarella as well as Sweet Italian Sausage with Roasted Peppers and Parmesan) makes a lot of sense.
Busy consumers (and who isn't?) lack time for meal preparation, so the trend toward eating more snack-type foods is obvious. Households in the U.S. are redefining what a snack or meal is and when that snack or meal is eaten. People are using snacks to provide a small meal that can be eaten on the go. However, at some point, most of these busy consumers begin to question what it is they are eating while on the go.
There are limited options for familiar snacks that fit their lifestyles, are satisfying, signal meal acceptability via real food elements and have a "healthy halo." The growth of a brand like Hot Pockets has been driven more by familiar flavor options than a health halo. Lean Pockets, with a definition of healthiness via lower fat, may not fit all family consumption. "All natural," while comforting to some, is recognized by many as a marketing term that has no real definition for consumers.
From our Healthy You!, It!s Convenient and Crave It! databases, we find the key attributes for convenient appetizers are: taste, appearance, aroma, easy to eat, ready to eat, portion size and flavor varieties. When asked to make trade off choices, consumers are looking for premiumness via similarity to sit-down restaurant cuisine, good for you, bite-size quick and fun, vitamins and minerals, all natural, tastes fresh, perfect to hold in one hand, sensory experience, and already prepared. Appetizers are consumed from lunch time to late evening or during TV viewing, with family or friends, alone and while playing on the computer for most Americans.
Key trends that impact this category are: convenience, flavors and healthfulness.
Convenience: Snack foods provide a quick bite.Through the warmth of the product and real food ingredients, they deal with hunger and can be eaten on the go. One concern is the impact of microwave heating on the overall flavor and texture of the snack.
Flavors: The category has grown via new flavors concentrating on Mexican and Asian. Consumers welcome cuisines such as American, Chinese, Mexican, Italian and Cajun/Creole, according to our It!s Convenient study. The key is to provide a familiar cuisine style and yet deliver a unique flavor.
Healthfulness: While these products are viewed as healthier than shelf-stable snack foods, their fat and sodium levels can be high. These ingredients are part of what makes the food taste good and increases their satiety. So the real challenge is how to create a "healthy halo."
Alexia Pizza Snacks are not available in all food stores. Alexia is using specific retail outlets (in this case Whole Foods) to provide a signal to consumers that this is a healthy snack. The product we tested with consumers -- Pesto Chicken with Fresh Mozzarella -- is available in a 6-oz. box at $3.49-3.99.
The package is white with a beauty shot of the snack (and the inside of the snack) on the front. The wording All Natural appears above the brand and Gourmet Quality is on either side of the Alexis Snack name. It includes a description of pesto chicken in a smaller font. A ribbon proclaims "0g trans fat."
Taste, appearance, aroma and ease of preparation/eating are critical to the integration of a frozen snack into a consumer's lifestyle. Most of our tasters thought the package and its directions were created for young to middle-age adults, not kids, since the directions did not include pictures and had fairly small font sizes. The size and appearance of the pizza snack was similar to other pizza snacks.
When tasters bit into the pizza snacks they experienced a light, flavorful filling. Unlike other pizza snacks, which coat the inside of your mouth with a sweet "tomatoey" taste, these pizza snacks provided a light pesto-oil flavor and then a mild mozzarella flavor. The chicken is small, white in color, mild and delicate in flavor providing the sensation of eating protein, but not a lot of flavor.
Alexia's flavors are less overbearing than those of traditional pizza flavors and so create a lighter taste. This translates for many tasters into a perception of healthiness. The flavor was considered different (more real?) and unique. It was more likely to go with a lighter beverage (water, citrus) than a heavier (cola) beverage.
The outer crust was considered good, flavorful and not greasy. However, once the tasters became more familiar with the flavor (after a couple of pieces), they began to question the "real" healthiness of the snack. All natural is so undefined for many consumers that, while it can provide a point of difference in the short run, health-conscious consumers are looking for "real" differences.
The hard numbers don't add up to healthy. Alexia's product has 210 calories per serving, 90 of those from fat, 10g of total fat, 2.5g of saturated fats and 10mg of cholesterol. Totino's are 200 calories per serving, 70 from fat, 8g of fat, 2g of saturated fat and 5mg of cholesterol. However, Alexia did beat Totino's on sodium (210mg vs. 480mg). And, at least as of this writing, Totino's still had 1.5g trans fat, while Alexia had none.
Our tasters were searching for why this pizza snack was really different. They wanted to compare the Alexia product to Totino's. Since the experience is about the product on its own, we didn't compare. While there were taste cues and package cues, the pizza snacks were perceived as similar. It was hard to know what the Alexia snack was, other than a new flavor.
Does the product deliver?
Alexia snacks are about bringing ingenuity to the category and serving up different/special flavor in very little time. These products deliver something different to a familiar category. By placing it at a retailer that already is associated with health, that connection is implied. And they do shout "0g trans fat."
How to make the idea bigger: This product provides some different choices for the consumer. While other frozen snack brands have chosen more familiar flavors and cuisine styles, Alexia is providing premiumness via its unique take on flavors and the lightness of the products. This is on trend for many consumers.
However, at some point health-conscious consumers will turn over the box and compare. Alexia is ahead of some competitors with all-natural and trans fat-free claims. But the company must deliver better numbers on the ingredient panel.
Another approach would be changing size and shape - but that would change it from a pizza snack to another product. So Alexia could do what is natural throughout the category of appetizers and develop different forms. That way health-conscious consumers can have a nice "pupu" platter.
Rating: Alexia Pizza Snacks does deliver something different to the category with unique flavors and health cues. This is an innovative way to focus the consumer on their choice of snacking and its healthiness. And the company has leveraged a retailer relationship to drive a difference in health perception of the product versus competing brands.
Market potential: Given the marriage of unique flavor and health cues with the location of purchase, this one is positioned to do well. But others will study and follow. Look for new flavors -- and health claims --by other pizza snack makers.
Hollis Ashman is chief strategist and Jacqueline Beckley is president of the Understanding & Insight Group, a strategy, business and product development firm that connects with consumers using qualitative and quantitative approaches. For more information, see www.theuandigroup.com.