But at least a segment of them are being credited with propping, and even growing, the sales of one of the most ridiculously named food products in existence, even as its peers fall by the wayside: Hungry-Man frozen dinners.
Last year, the product saw growth in the “mid single digits,” the company says, and continues to hold an 8 percent share of the entire frozen dinners segment.
“We understand the consumer who really loves this brand,” Bob Gamgort, CEO of Pinnacle Foods, which distributes the product, said on its most recent earnings call.
That consumer: Men. Young men.
First launched in the early 70s during the heyday of TV dinners, Hungry-Man was at a crossroads when Gamgort took over as Pinnacle CEO in 2009 as frozen foods of all kinds began to come under criticism — and sales pressure. Hungry-Man’s XXL Roasted Carved Turkey was voted “saltiest frozen dinner” by Men’s Health in 2008, clocking in at 4,480 mg of sodium for a total of 1,360 calories.
“On all the conversations that we have about health and wellness and positioning for the future and millennials, it frequently gets pointed out as a brand that seems to be out of sync with the times,” Gamgort said on the call.
So the company decided it either had to cut costs, as some frozen dinner competitors were choosing to do, but which would further degrade quality; or increase quality, and price, to boost margins.
They chose the latter, using more select meat products and rolling out a series of “trendier” flavors, while keeping sodium and calorie counts the same, or even bumping them up: CalorieKing.com now says the XXL dinner contains 5,410 mg of sodium at 1,450 calories, although other meals can be half this. The meals sell for about $3 at Walmart.
It’s apparently working, with sales being driven by men ranging from high-school age to their '30s, according to Maria Sceppaguerico, Pinnacle’s senior vice president for investor relations.
“Not all millennials are exactly the same,” she said. “There are millennials who are extremely health and wellness-oriented oriented, and then there are millennials eating guy comfort food. And it’s entirely possible to eat both but at different times.”
Here are what some of the new "trendy"-flavored "select" offerings look like. Each comes with mashed potatoes, corn, and a dessert.
Fried chicken and waffles…
And Chipotle BBQ Boneless Chicken Wyngz.
"Our success in 2014 reflects the expansion of our higher price Selects line," Gamgort said.
Frozen food in general has been seeing sluggish sales. The Wall Street Journal reported last year that the category has lagged behind the rate of inflation the past four years. Sales of frozen meals were fell 3 percent between 2009 and 2013.
Which makes Hungry Man’s survival all the more impressive.
“There are very few substitutes in the freezer case that provide comfort food in sufficient quantities,” Gamgort said. “Most of the quantities have been reduced dramatically over the past number of years. We have not lessened the quantity of food.”
Sceppaguerico acknowledged that the name “Hungry-Man” is dated, but said the company is “not concerned one bit” about alienating women.
“We are not going after [them], but it doesn’t meant we’re trying to alienate the female demographic,” she said.
“The demographic is a guy who works long hours, and when they get home they really want to eat right away,” she said. “It’s something they could eat in a few minutes. Not to say women don’t eat it, but they’re not the core consumer.”
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.