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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

TFFG Exclusive: Editor’s Picks!


BLUE RIBBONS TO BAKED ZITI, EGGPLANT BURGERS

Every now and then The Frozen Food Guy happens across a frozen food product that merits extra-special accolades. Much of the information written and posted here on TFFG by TFFG comes from press releases directly from the companies (my “A” list of sources) and information gleaned indirectly from various websites, news distribution agencies, and print magazines.

So, it seems appropriate that when I stumble across a product that really “punches all my buttons,” it should be duly noted.

I’ve recently discovered two such products—a baked ziti from Trader Joe’s Reduced Guilt and an eggplant veggie burger from Dominex.

The Frozen Food Guy in action:
    Getting his ziti fix at Trader Joe's
Let’s start with Trader Joe’s Reduced Guilt. I am a newcomer to the Trader’s Joe’s shopping experience. There is much to like in the new store that opened this fall in my neighborhood (Upper West Side of Manhattan). The prices are good, aisles are spacious, and the staff incredibly friendly based on New York standards. I especially like the way products are merchandised and the upbeat, catchy signage.

I found the baked ziti quite by accident as I had wandered in the store in the middle of the afternoon as more of a “site inspection” than a shopping trip on opening day, but I was soon swept up in the vibe this new store presented. It seems that Trader Joe’s key demographic is on the young-ish side (single 20-somethings) and the store reflects that, although on this particular visit there was a good turnout of seniors and retirees. Looking back, I think most of them came out of curiosity, as I have not seen many since.

Anyway, I was particularly drawn to the open freezer cases, known in industry parlance as “coffins.” I was also intrigued by the hand-written signage throughout the store. TJ’s really pulls this off, as hand-written could come off looking cutesy or worse, cheap, but these signs were both fun and informative. Most stores where I shop don’t offer much in the way of signage at all, yet alone legible pricing on or near the products, so this was a plus.

Also intriguing was TJ’s cross-merchandising. Just above these open freezer cases were shelves, built at about eye level, stocked with shelf-stable products—interesting cookies and crackers. Traditional grocers talk a lot about cross-merchandsing, but they just never do it. Especially in the frozen foods section. I ended up buying the baked ziti mostly on price—$1.99. But I was so impressed by the above-the-case merchandising (and the related signage), I ended up making an impulse buy of a package of cookies.

Comparatively, the Dominex Eggplant Burgers are sold in the freezer cases of the extensive natural and organic section (second floor) of my primary grocery store—Fairway at 74th and Broadway. This is a natural/organic frozen foods department that features a wide array of Amy’s products and specialty ice creams and sorbets, along with a good selection of frozen organic vegetables and several brands of meat alternative products. It’s probably the largest such section in Manhattan other than the Whole Foods at Columbus Circle. Shopping at Fairway, however, is an extension of life on the streets of the Upper West Side—busy, bustling and crowded. In contrast to the new Trader Joe’s (just two blocks away), Fairway does not offer spacious aisles, nor is there an upbeat vibe. Mostly it’s a lot of shoppers all jockeying and maneuvering through very crowded aisles and some very aggressive employees stocking shelves and pushing carts laded with merchandise up and down these same aisles (and they have some sort of pre-determined right of way.) But, Fairway has the magic formula— lots of very good food products at very good prices.

Just to clarify, the new Trader Joe’s opened in the fall. And it’s now February, and I have made several trips into the store specifically to buy that Reduced Guilt Baked Ziti. That’s the kind of repeat purchase food marketers dream about. I really like the Eggplant Burgers but they are primarily purchased as part of a typical shopping trip and are included on my list. I rarely make impulse purchases when food shopping, at least not in these economic times.

So much for how I got to the products the first time. Let’s take a look at their taste and presentation—the attributes that spurred additional purchases—and overall value:

TRADER JOE’S REDUCED GUILT BAKED ZITI: The product is actually billed as “Baked Ziti with Mozzarella and Grana Cheese.” I am not familiar with Grana cheese but it must be a secret ingredient or something, because this product really works. First off, it tastes good. But more than that, it’s satisfying, as in filling, which is just as important as tasting good. And there are no sleight of hand tricks where the single container is actually two serving sizes (a major pet peeve of The Frozen Food Guy). This one serving of baked ziti makes you feel like you’ve really eaten something; unlike far too many “diet” food presentations that are really appetizer-sized but passed off as an “entrée.” “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me…” and all that. Or as I like to think of it, ill-conceived product development idea that consumers will wise up to much faster than the time spent by food corporation executives trotting out that new (yet slightly dishonest) presentation—such as the duplicitous and devious “one serving tray presented as 2 servings” to make the nutritional information of each serving more palatable. Who heats just half of a single-size serving tray?

Granted, the baked ziti’s sodium level is high (590 mg or 25% of the recommended daily value) but I don’t ingest a lot of salt overall, so the high sodium is balanced against reasonable calories (320) and a manageable fat content (7 grams) and a good amount of fiber (3 grams). In the old Weight Watchers “Points” system, this product used to be 6 points but since they retooled the program a few months ago and rebranded “Points” as “Points Plus” the revised points assessment is 9 points. Not so bad when considering WW’s daily points targets and weekly extra points “allowance” were also increased. (Go to http://www.weightwatchers.com/plan/index.aspx for more on the upgraded WW program.)

A product that fares well on the nutritional score card; tastes good; and is actually satisfying—well, that’s clearly a win-win-win. This product works especially well when paired with a nice green salad and a glass of red wine. A perfect—and easy to prepare—winter-time evening meal.

Oh, and I almost forget—all this for $1.99. You got it: ka-ching, ka-ching and ka-ching again. Yes, that’s the sound of repeat purchases by Mr. TFFG himself.

DOMINEX EGGLPLANT BURGER: Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, “eggplant burgers…yuk.” But au contrare, mon frère! These “meat sub(stitute)” patties are flavorful, filling, and they even have the texture and aroma when cooked just like real meat. I don’t know how the folks at Dominex pulled it all off, but one key factor is the moistness to the product. When they come out of the microwave there is, well, juice or something—like you get when cooking real meat/protein (beef, pork, chicken, fish, etc.) in a pan or baking dish—on the dish or plate used for heating them.

Eggplant Burgers retail for $3.99, which seems like a lot when you compare them with the Baked Ziti at TJ’s above for half that, but the ziti is just one and done—a single serving. The eggplant burgers offer four patties to a package—so that’s just a buck per burger. Taste, convenience, value—yes, we have another ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching triple winner. Hint: look in the natural foods section freezer of your food store if you don’t find them in the mix with the regular frozen foods (pizza, ice cream, waffles, etc.).

And Points-wise, in case you’re counting? Each Eggplant Burger was 1 point and now “weighs” in at 2 points.

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