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DINNER A LA CART A QUICK TASTE OF THE HARRIED PERSON'S ALTERNATIVE: SUPERMARKET MEALS

Every Monday through Friday at 6 p.m. they're in the supermarket aisles. Men and women in business garb gazing into the prepared-food cases like kids in a candy store.

But they aren't thinking about licorice twists or sugary dots -- they're thinking about dinner.

And they are weighing the advantages of grilled vegetables against seafood salad at Tops, perhaps. Or crab cakes vs. sliced leg of lamb at Wegmans.

"Home meal replacements" -- HMR, if you're into corporate alphabetics -- are supposedly the hottest trend in the food industry. The term was pioneered by Boston Market when it began to provide home-style meals for takeout.

Convenience is all in this time-starved society, so the concept took off. And the supermarkets were watching.

Ah, the joys of not cooking!

Now nearly every local grocery store offers prepared food, and it's usually a much more extensive line than deli meats and pizzas. All customers have to do is take the "home meal replacements" home, heat them if necessary, and turn them onto one of their own china plates, consuming it with their own silverware at their own table.

And then comes what may be the best part of all -- no cleanup. Is it any wonder that some industry analysts estimate the size of the HMR market today at $1 billion to $2 billion, with estimates of enormous future growth -- $20 billion by 2000, according to one conservative estimate.

Though everyone agrees that the home meal concept will grow, no one is quite sure how much or in what way.

To tell the truth, nobody seems able even to define the concept specifically.

Some people say the term is just business school-ese for what used to be called "takeout."

Joshua Isenberg, the Chicago-based editor of the Food Channel, an industry newsletter, however, says that's simply not so. HMRs are takeout with a difference.

"We are talking about complete meals -- entree, side dishes, desserts and vegetables," Isenberg says. "They are balanced, share-able, varied, family-style, home-style meals. The kind the customer would cook at home if he had the time (or the staff) to do it."

Frank Toscano, vice president for perishables at Tops Markets, says that chain's Carry Out Cafes aim to "present restaurant quality at supermarket prices."

During one slightly hectic dinnertime, we assembled our own meal at the Transit/French Road Tops store. From several possibilities, we selected a pound container of Seafood Salad ($5.98). The ingredient label said the salad was made from mock crab, celery and Hellman's mayonnaise (an ingredient label is optional in most cases) and the salad was ample enough to serve two as a main dish.

We also selected some tasty pre-packaged olive-oil-grilled vegetables (red-skinned potatoes, zucchini, onions and bell peppers) for $3.38 a pound. The Cauliflower/Broccoli Foccacia, made with feta cheese ($2.75), was a little dry but adequate.

Other things available at that store included pre-cooked chicken and pasta salads.

Wegmans offers more selections to help you make up a complete meal.

Every weekday from 5 to 7 p.m., a Wegmans store like the one we visited on Transit Road, Williamsville, puts out a display of four to eight vegetables and starches as well as four to six types of meat, chicken or other protein. The food is prepared fresh in the store and the lineup changes daily.

Customers select two side dishes and one main dish (bread also is included) for an all-inclusive price.

We selected two complete meals -- roast lamb, scalloped potatoes, mixed salad; and crab cakes, seven-grain salad and eggplant tomato tapenade, both for $15.98. The clerk was very explicit about how to reheat the food, and we enjoyed our dinner in our own dining room. (Crab cakes, however, may not be the ideal takeout food. They tend to get soggy.)

Wegmans has made a big commitment to the HMR concept, says Don Woods, a trained chef and former restaurateur who is the coordinator of prepared foods and deli for the chain's Buffalo district.

The new store opening this fall on Amherst Street in the city will expand on the concept still further. It will involve local chefs with highly specialized training.

Who are the HMR customers, anyway?

Originally the idea was developed to appeal to two-income families in which neither partner has time to cook. But store managers now say the concept appeals to seniors as well, and anyone who has an active lifestyle.

"HMRs are not just for baby boomers," says Toscano of Tops, who points out that customer convenience is an important thing.

"Our number is in the phone book, so people can call to order in advance," he says. "And during peak hours (11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., and 4:30 to 7 p.m. weekdays) there is a manned register right in the cafe so people can pay without standing in a grocery line."

Other experts take a different approach. "The whole business of eating has changed through the years," says Sue Hovey, vice president for consumer affairs for Penn Traffic, parent company of Quality Markets.

"It's no longer the meat, potato, vegetable, dessert pattern we knew as children," she says. "Everyone has a different need today."

Ms. Hovey says Quality Markets takes a more conservative approach. "We have no special departments with packaged meals ready to go," she explains. "Prepared food is everywhere in the store to help people facing a time crunch eat simply and quickly.

"The deli has salads and pizza, roast chicken and hot entrees. You can buy anything you want in the bakery, and the produce department has bagged salads.

"Our meat department has stuffed meats that we prepare in store, and also marinated meats that manufacturers prepare for us" (which require only simple broiling or grilling).

"We prefer to think of the concept as meal solutions rather than replacements."

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