The Moving Food Bar

The Bowl Roll

Forget Boiling Water

Time, Work and Money

Tall Toddlers, Shrinking Seniors

Food bars are on the move. They come in two basic sizes and types. Type I bars are measured in feet and offer wide assortments of ready-to-eat foods and flavors to go. Type II are measured in inches and held in one hand. They too offer a wide assortment of ready to eat foods and flavors to go. Type II (hand held) bars are growing faster than Type I (take-out bars) right now, but both types are worth watching.

Call them salad bars' step-children or saloon foods for the 21st Century. We learned about (food service) Food Bar fans by listening to consumers talk about today's (packaged) food bars. Even though we asked them to compare today's food bars with granola bars, several answered questions in reference to what we usually think of as prepared food or take-out shops. If their responses hadn't been so enthusiastic, we would have chalked the comments up to a poorly worded question. But careful listening showed us that some consumers think take-out food bars are great. They like the idea of salad bars, sandwich bars, and Chinese and Thai food bars and think of them all as food bars. One respondent was excited about an Indian food bar that was about to open in her neighborhood. Three benefits were attributed to take-out bars:
1) value
2) freshness
3) speed.
We affectionately described them as saloon foods because their benefit combination is a throwback to the long-standing reputation of traditional (beer and booze) bars for serving good, fast, and cheap food.

Old-fashioned consumers like to have all of their food on plates. These plate-centered consumers are packaged food bar holdouts, but they are a minority. More than two thirds of the shoppers we surveyed are using packaged food bars at least occasionally, mostly because "They are just so convenient!" and "They really save time!"

Convenience in the form of individually wrapped bars has moved from candy bars to granola bars to Power Bars, Balance Bars, Slim Fast bars, Ensure bars, Odwalla Bars, Heart Bars and a seemingly endless flow of flavor-variety food bars. They appease hunger and boost physical and/or psychological energy between meals, or replace them altogether. They offer a wide variety of health benefits as well as flavors. They save time and work in the morning, when saving time and work are more important than saving money to most consumers under age 50. They have a strong nutrition profile that accents protein and soy and a minimum of sugar. They fit almost every shelf, lunch box, car door or glove compartment, pocketbook, back pack and food belief. . And in addition to being sold everywhere that candy bars are sold, food bars are widely available at health and natural food stores and at hospitals where they are positioned as healthy meal supplements, or in the case of doctors' offices, as amenities like drug samples that cost the doctors or their practice-owners nothing.

Some rejecters see them as expensive cookies but users like them for a breakfast on the go or a quick lunch. Many keep them on pantry shelves at home or at the office to satisfy sudden or creeping hungers healthfully. Some parents send bars to day care. Others keep bars at home in the hopes that their kids will use them instead of candy, cookies, or microwavable snacks. (These hopes are frequently unrealized but parents keep trying because the food bars seem like such a good idea.) Some believe that better day care centers use food bars instead of cookies and chips for snacks.

The most frequent users told us they use them between and in place of breakfast and lunch, when saving time is most important:

  • Granola bars were dry. The new bars are moist, more like pastry, and healthier too.
  • We never liked granola bars but really like the Slim Fast bars.
  • The new ones taste better and they are softer.
  • My husband really likes the new ones for their healthy convenience for lunch at work.
  • Overall, I think they are more nutritionally balanced, less fat, more vitamins and fiber, more protein and less carbs than granola bars. And I like Balance Bars best.


Food bars are almost everywhere while food bowls are on a roll in the freezer case and making appearances on the grocery shelf as well. Bowl foods taste good and eliminate prep steps and dishes. They began with a Kings Hawaiian restaurant bowl entrée that was first packaged for multi-pack distribution in club stores. When it appeared in supermarket freezer cases it was packaged in single serving, super-convenient VersaTrayÔ bowls that can be heated in traditional or microwave ovens. Consumers liked the package and the authentic product. The bowl idea hit big time when Mars Inc. rolled out Uncle Ben's® Rice Bowls. The Uncle Ben's® website claims that their Rice Bowls are "convenient. delicious...98% fat …a new answer to the dilemmas of today's hectic lifestyle. Just seven short minutes to heat up, no clean up and enough choices to keep your taste buds entertained for days! Six feature quality Tyson® chicken, two make perfectly nutritious, meatless meals and two include hearty beef."
The consumers we heard from agreed with Uncle Ben's Rice Bowl claims and added some benefit perceptions of their own. First, they believe that Uncle Ben's really knew what they were doing with rice (just as King Hawaiian knew what they were doing with their Hawaiian food bowls.). Both of these companies were/are experts with rice, a product that many American consumers have trouble getting just right. Second, several consumers noted that the frozen rice bowl products actually taste fresh - which is about the highest compliment consumers can give a frozen food.
According to Information Resources, both Nestlé's Stouffer's Skillet Sensations and Mars, Inc.'s Uncle Ben's Rice Bowls made last years' top ten products. "Uncle Ben's Rice Bowls, which offer meals on the go in a convenient bowl that serves as both the cooking and serving dish, had $98.4 million in sales for 1999-2000. Only three percent of the 1,000 or so new CPG products introduced annually clear the $50 million sales hurdle in their first year. These products clearly hit the right buttons with consumers…"
We've heard good things about Stouffer's frozens for years, so positive comments about their Skillet Sensations didn't surprise us. What Uncle Ben's accomplished was to extend their rice reputation to a new food experience, a new kind of meal preparation, and a new part of the store. If they can maintain their current quality level and price points, the rice bowls should be recognized as real innovations that should be around for a long while. They have been joined in the freezer case by Noodle Bowls from Uncle Ben's as well as bowl products from Weight Watchers and Healthy Choice. Some consumers see them as much improved TV Dinners for the 21st Century. We see them as an updated cross between Campbell's now-defunct Le Menu and the Michelina line developed by Gino Pallucci and now part of the growing frozen line at Heinz - altogether another step up the ladder toward everyday prepared foods.

Since General Mill's has had its finger on the pulse of consumer convenience, and made focusing on extending convenience its corporate strategy, we were very surprised to hear that they may have missed the mark with shelf-stable Betty Crocker Bowl Appetite. Almost all of the consumers who responded enthusiastically to our bowl questions had been introduced to bowls via Uncle Ben's. Almost all the respondents who bad-mouthed the bowl idea were basing their low opinion on Betty Crocker Bowl Appetite. Some had trouble following the instructions (the etched fill line on the black plastic bowl is very hard to see.) Some associated adding water with the very inexpensive ramen soups - and while the Betty Crocker product is much cheaper than Uncle Ben's, it's not cheap relative to ramen noodle soups. Maybe it's the fact that Betty Crocker bowls sound like they are for mixing, not for eating. Or maybe the Asians know something about the special relationship between rice, noodles and bowls that make King's Hawaiian and Uncle Ben's products taste fresh and Betty Crocker's taste soggy?

  • The Bowls are tasty and convenient.
  • They are real time saves for busy families.
  • Uncle Ben's is the best. Wonderful flavor combinations and nice-sized portions.
  • I think Uncle Ben's bowls are great. The food tastes fresh and they are very convenient.
  • Bowl Appetit is mediocre.
  • I tried Bon Appetit Rice bowl and it was really dry! Too expensive for taste!! I won't buy again.
  • Haven't tired them yet but I plan to.
  • I tried the Betty Crocker Bowl and didn't like it at all.
  • Have used food bowls. Their success is based on convenience.
  • They are a "complete" meal in one package, but smaller portion.

It isn't only the taste that's keeping more consumers from climbing aboard this bandwagon. Many are concerned about price and/or additives. The perception of prepared foods being laced with additives is still widespread:

  • I've tried them and in a pinch they are okay but everything is becoming processed and quicker.
  • Prefer to prepare foods without preservatives and additives.
  • Ready to heat prepared foods are too expensive for me and have too many additives.

Here is an observation on the Tyson's ingredient branding on Uncle Ben's Rice Bowls: The use of branded (Tyson) Chicken in Uncle Ben's Rice Bowls helps to position the bowls as quality products because they claim to use expensive ingredients. It's an especially interesting usage of ingredient branding because a concurrent Consumer Network study of store brand versus national brand quality perceptions for perishables showed that in spite of heavy brand penetration in recent years, most consumers perceived little or no quality difference between store brand and national brand chicken. This consumer's assessment is typical of what we heard: "The big chicken brands are better packaged and come in more cut varieties. And since one of them is almost always on sale, they are usually cheaper than the store brand. But the quality is no different. Store brand chicken is cheaper and just as good but I only buy it when none of the big brands are on sale."


Saying that someone had trouble boiling water used to be a description of a really challenged cook. Today, we're approaching a time when boiling water may be about as useful as long division. Microwavable pasta-sauce combos eliminate boiling water and are expected to make huge inroads on the billions of bags and boxes of spaghetti, linguine, capellini, noodles, ziti, lasagna and macaroni that have come to a boil in American kitchens during the last hundred years. Even the spaghetti dinner kits introduced by Chef Boyardi in the 1940's or 50's required the consumer to boil the pasta. The canned spaghettis and raviolis marketed by Franco American and Chef Boyardi were mainstays for kids and soft-food seniors but never challenged a real spaghetti dinner. The new combinations take on that challenge and where we go from there is a real question. Many food trend watchers believed that we would be further along the path to Prêt a Manger (ready to eat) by the turn of 21st century - just as we moved from sewing to Prêt a Porter (ready to wear) clothes as we entered the 20th century. Prêt a Manger hasn't moved as quickly as some thought because many people really enjoy cooking and many still find cooking for their loved ones the best way to express that love.

  • Sometimes it's nice to prepare family meals from fresh ingredients and to savor the aroma that fills your home and enjoy a meal from your hands to your family.

The smell will almost certainly be added to convenience foods during the next few years. The big question is how often consumers will want to use their hands to cook for themselves or their families.


It's a given these days that food has to taste good. And for some consumers, it's got to be viewed as healthy and safe. Beyond those three major concerns, most of the trade-offs that consumers make about convenience related foods involve time, work, and money.

Because we were looking at time-saving convenience items like bars and bowls, we asked a group of our shoppers to tell us how important it was to save time, work and money in a variety of categories. The differences between meal occasion categories were substantial - but so was the difference between age groups. Among our younger shoppers, saving time and work is the driver in most categories. Saving money is a consideration for snack and breakfast foods but is less important for lunch and dinner. Among our 31-50 shoppers, saving time is critical at breakfast but less important at lunch. Among our 50+ shoppers, saving money on food may not be a priority but is always a consideration.

(Numbers show mean importance ratings on a 5-point scale where 5=Extremely important.)

Ages 19-30 Ages 31-49 Ages 50+
Breakfast food
Time 4.6 4.4 3.4
Work 4.4 3.9 3.1
Money 4.4 3.6 4.1
Lunch food
Time 5.0 3.8 3.5
Work 5.0 3.7 3.3
Money 3.8 3.8 3.8
Snack food
Time 3.4 3.5 2.9
Work 3.0 3.4 3.3
Money 4.2 3.8 3.9
Dinner Food
Time 4.2 3.7 3.7
Work 4.3 3.7 3.1
Money 3.8 4.1 3.6

Since we almost never find perfect agreement among our changing cross sections of shoppers, we sometimes wonder how Quaker meetings manage to reach full consensus before taking action. That philosophical question is included here to point up the wonder of the 5.0 mean responses on the importance of saving time and work at lunch. No matter where they were from, no matter whether or not they had kids, everyone under 31 agreed strongly that lunch must be fast and effortless. No wonder the Lunchable type combo kits and the Type II bars are so successful.

The meaning of "work" changes right along with time expectations and perceptions. One of the young respondents pointed out that microwave popcorn involved more time and work than a bag of corn or chips but was a lot cheaper. Note that she described microwave popcorn as involving time and work! For those of us who still crave kernels popped in oil while being stirred, realizing that the microwave quickies we resort to in a desperate pinch are today's version of time consuming work is the kind of comeuppance that keeps us on our trend toes!

"May you live in interesting times" is one of the supposedly Chinese blessings (or curses) that appear to be overtly true for those who are alive and well during these fast paced, fast changing, and fascinating times. A huge and still growing size range is one of the dozens of phenomena that characterizes our times. The widening range challenges store, car and home designers as well as consumer households and the marketers of things consumers use and wear and need to see. There are more and more size twos just as there is more and more obesity. Growing numbers of three and four generation families are dealing with giant size teenagers (who one mom described as very tall toddlers) and shrinking seniors (who seem to lose inch after inch as though they were looking toward a second childhood in size as well as function.)

Being tall isn't the coping, clothing or shoe-finding problem for girls that it used to be, especially for girls who are tall and slender. Being short is still a challenging problem for boys who sometimes equate tallness with strength and manliness. But growing shorter is a growing problem for shrinking seniors who are living longer and able to reach less and less even as they lose their balancing ability to climb and stretch. Although some supermarket operators are doing better at this than they did in years past, most drug stores and mass-market marts are easier for height-challenged shoppers than most supermarkets. "Being short, I'm always frustrated at the supermarket, especially in the cereal aisle when the kids cereals are at my eye level and the healthy cereals I want to buy are out of my reach."

The Shopper Report®, copyright 2001, edited by Mona Doyle, is published eleven times a year by The Consumer Network, Inc., 3624 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104. Phone (215)235-2400. Fax (215)235-6967. Email: Back issues are available at The Consumer Network provides consulting, presentation, and research services including focus groups, seminars, partnered shoppings, and surveys of consumers, employees, and executives.


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