The playbook for U.S. foodmakers often calls for exporting a successful U.S. product to points abroad. General Mills, for instance, has had a big hit in China with its classic Bugles corn snacks, albeit in some flavors we might not find here -- like seaweed.
With its Wanchai Ferry brand, the Golden Valley-based packaged food company has called a reverse. The brainchild of a Hong Kong pushcart vendor, Wanchai Ferry evolved into a popular supermarket brand in China.
General Mills brought the brand to the United States, and so far, it's done well. Since the 2009 launch of Wanchai Ferry frozen dinner entrees for two, they've generated more than $50 million in annual sales and quickly grabbed a respectable slice of market share.
Multi-serving dinners are a sweet spot in the frozen meal business, but one that's also attracting a lot of competition. Within a year of Wanchai Ferry's debut, packaged food giant Unilever teamed up with restaurant chain P.F Chang's China Bistro to launch a frozen entree sporting the latter's brand. Its sales appear to have jumped ahead of Wanchai Ferry's.
Wanchai Ferry is rooted in the business of Chong Kin Wo, or Madame Chong. In the 1970s, she started selling dumplings in Hong Kong's busy Wanchai commercial area, and her wares eventually made it into grocery stores under the Wanchai Ferry brand. Pillsbury bought the brand in 1997, and General Mills inherited it with its purchase of Pillsbury in 2001.
General Mills has built the brand into one of its star assets in China. Wanchai Ferry products, including dim sum and wontons, are available in about 100 Chinese cities, carried by such major international food retailers as Wal-Mart and France's Carrefour. Wanchai Ferry sales in China in 2010 were up 20 percent over the previous year.
In 2007, General Mills launched Wanchai Ferry dry dinner kits in the United States, which require consumers to add meat and cost about $4.60. In 2009 came the debut of frozen entrees, complete with meat, which can be prepared in about 15 minutes and cost $7 to $8.
While the brand name is the same as in China, the products are different, an attempt to account for American tastes, Nudi said. The frozen dinners come in eight varieties, including Orange Chicken, Shrimp Lo-Mein and Beef & Broccoli. The goal is to deliver "restaurant quality food," Nudi said.
Multi-serve dinners like Wanchai Ferry have been a bright spot in the frozen entree world, despite their relative high cost during a tough economy. They've been the only frozen meal segment posting sales gains since 2008 among food mass merchandisers excluding Wal-Mart, according to a fall report by market researcher Mintel International.
"Given that its biggest increases were during the peak of the recession, it appears that this segment has done a better job than the others in capturing dollars that might have otherwise been spent dining out," the Mintel report said.
According to market researcher SymphonyIRI Group, which tracks sales in conventional supermarket channels, Wanchai Ferry carved out about a 3 percent share of both the multi-serve frozen meal business and the dry dinner mix segment by the end of last year.
The dry dinner market is dominated by General Mills' Hamburger Helper. The frozen, multi-serve meal segment is topped by Stouffer's and Bertolli, with market shares respectively of 31 percent and 10 percent, according to IRI. P.F. Chang's had captured 5 percent of the market by the end of December, according to SymphonyIRI.
Restaurant brands have long enjoyed success when transplanted to the frozen food aisles. Stouffer's itself was born from a now-defunct restaurant chain, while the Marie Callender's brand originated from a western restaurant group, according to a recent report by market researcher Packaged Facts.
General Mills got into the restaurant act itself last year by launching multi-serve frozen dinners in a partnership with Romano's Macaroni Grill. That gives General Mills a two-front offensive in the freezer: Macaroni Grill for Italian tastes, Wanchai Ferry for Asian.
Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003