By JOHN O'CONNELL
J.R. Simplot Co. has reentered the retail french fry market with a line of frozen products intended to capitalize on the health food craze.
Simplot is now selling its CravOn brand of never-fried frozen spud products in Southern California, with plans to expand if consumers accept it.
Idaho growers and potato industry leaders say the addition of a new player and a creative, new product are both good news for a frozen retail potato category that's seen steady declines lately.
CravOn fries -- which come in steak, diamond, crinkle and diced cuts -- are cut, blanched, frozen and then tossed in olive oil and sea salt. Gary Laney, director of sales and marketing for CravOn brands, said they have half the fat of fries that are partially fried in processing.
"You don't taste the oil. Instead you taste potato," Laney said. "There's just enough oil on the outside to give it some crisping."
Laney said Simplot started shipping CravOn fries to independent grocers ranging from San Diego to Los Angeles in mid-February. The company is negotiating with grocery chains and expects to have the brand in 500-900 stores by the end of summer.
He explained large grocers change their frozen offerings annually, typically at back-to-school time.
Simplot now makes CravOn spuds in Grand Forks, N.D., using a host of varieties.
Food scientist David Gallina, with the company's Technical Center in Caldwell, Idaho, developed the product concept. CravOn spent two years in the development stage. A Los Angeles market research company tested the products with various demographics, providing feedback to make improvements.
Simplot left the retail market in the mid-1990s. At the time, it offered a Micro Magic brand of microwavable french fries, cheeseburgers, hamburgers and milkshakes.
"Maybe it was an idea a little before it's time," Laney said.
As the company reenters the market, sales in the frozen potato category are down 20 percent from last year, Laney said.
Returning to retail is not without its costs. Retailers charge substantial "slotting fees" to stock new items. Marketing expenses will also be significant. Laney hopes CravOn will bring back former frozen fry consumers and capture new ones.
"Consumers are becoming increasingly more health conscious, but they love their french fries," Laney said.
Idaho Potato Commission President and CEO Frank Muir like's the emphasis on potatoes as a healthy option.
"I think there's some real additional opportunities in the frozen category that have not been fully explored right now," Muir said.
Jeff Harper, an IPC commissioner from Mountain Home, is pleased another company is willing to compete with H.J. Heinz and its dominant Ore-Ida label.
Ryan Cranney, a U.S. Potato Board member from Oakley, Idaho, is concerned potato sales have been declining while growers consistently increase yields.
"We're going to have to develop products that meet the demands of the consumer. Right now they're calling for more healthy options," Cranney said.