<book>Looneyspoons</book> Team Launches Frozen Dinners

"Loser." With a smile curling up on her face, Janet Podleski savours and stretches out the first syllable. She is talking about her sister and business partner, Greta Podleski - and not in private.

Looneyspoons Team Launches Frozen Dinners

"Loser." With a smile curling up on her face, Janet Podleski savours and stretches out the first syllable. She is talking about her sister and business partner, Greta Podleski - and not in private. The sisters, who first burst onto the scene in 1996 with their hugely successful cookbook, Looneyspoons, have a new venture. Along with Dave Chilton, a.k.a. The Wealthy Barber, they've made the leap from the business of books into the even more fraught business of food, with the launch of a line of frozen dinners. In radio ads like the one they're doing now, Janet rags her sister, for despite Greta's famously fabulous abilities in the kitchen, she's still without a man in her life. And while "loser" is hardly a moniker most people would use to promote themselves, Greta is not Most People and, like her sister, curls up a smile at the insult.

The girls, as they call themselves, have cooked up a series of nutritious, do-it-yourself meals. Like the style of their first cookbook - a runaway bestseller - and its follow-up, Crazy Plates, which were peppered with cartoons and puns, the dinners have light-humoured names, like Worth Every Penne and Mission Impastable. They take 20 minutes or less to cook, but require the consumer to have a hand in their making. Each one is designed to feed two to three people; they are easy to prepare, fairly tasty and, at $9.95, priced competitively. More importantly to Chilton and the Podleskis, the product taps into a growing trend of consumers wanting healthy dinners, and needing them fast.

But the sisters are almost as much the product as the food is. With their sexy appeal and an overflowing enthusiasm - they love the meals - the Podleskis present themselves as a wacky, struggling pair up against the giants. They want consumers to buy in - and be on their side. They joke and poke fun at each other and finish each other's sentences. It's part of their considerable charm - and their shtick.

Chilton, the company president and a millionaire from his Barber investment book, is no slouch, either. He's a fast talker, confident and happy to egg on the sisters. He teases Greta for being a control freak. She feigns a pout, and sends the remark right back. Janet is the assertive one, yet quick to dissolve into tears, they say. But both are tough, determined and ready to risk all to make this venture work.

The "loser" ad happened when they were working on their scripts. They were fooling around and it just popped out, Janet says, as they were recording. And because behind the goofy personas are two very smart and very savvy marketers, the self-deprecating humour survived. Close to Greta's home in Kitchener, Ont., the only market where the ads have been broadcast so far, the response has been terrific, Greta says. One lady stopped her at a grocery store. "Oh, it's you," the lady exclaimed, "the loser!" Greta rolls her eyes, as if to say it's a small price.

Cookbook buyers had been telling the sisters they loved the recipes but didn't have enough time every night to cook from scratch, says Chilton, who worked with the Podleskis to self-publish their first book. After the second recipe book was out, the trio scouted around for a new project. They didn't want to do a third cookbook. They turned down "at least a dozen" proposals for TV cooking shows, says Janet, including U.S. ones. "We didn't care about being household celebrities," says Greta. They considered a line of sauces. Then, encouraged by a pair of food consultants, one of whom still works with the company, they set up Crazy Plates Inc. and turned to meal kits. "Even the big food companies have always said this is where it's heading," says Chilton. "But nobody'd figured out quite how to do it."

That's because it's a business filled with pitfalls. Putting together the right foodstuffs, so they appeal to many taste buds and defrost at a consistent, complementary speed; establishing and maintaining a pipeline for quality ingredients; packaging the food, and in Crazy Plates' case, using up to five separate pouches inside the box; transporting frozen items; making deals with grocers to get space on the shelves, preferably at eye level; getting the right volume so the supermarkets have neither too much nor not enough; catching the attention of busy, already-bombarded consumers - anywhere along the line, a miss could mean a disaster, and that in a business where even the money-makers work on tight margins. The Podleskis and Chilton knew it would be tough. Still, says Greta, "like our cookbooks, we wanted to do something that had never been done before."

After 15 months of work, "unpaid," as the girls like to point out - developing recipes, testing the products, designing the packages, and finding suppliers and vendors - the first meal kits went on the shelves of selected Ontario stores owned by Loblaw Cos. Ltd. in April, 2001. By late the next month, they'd bombed. "We were on the wrong track," Chilton says. The "seminal moment" came in June, following, of all things, a golf tournament. At 1 a.m., Chilton phoned Greta and Janet. "We've got to start over," he told them.

There were two problems. The packages were unattractive and, more significantly, the meal kits, originally designed to serve families of four or five, were too big and, at $13.95, too expensive. "We need a new price point and new packaging," Chilton told Janet and Greta. "It was awful," says Greta. There were 50,000 dinners in the freezers in the stores and the warehouse. "The girls said, 'What are we going to do with that?'" recalls Chilton, "and I said, 'We're going to give it all away.'"

Chilton paid $600,000 to the grocers to buy the food back. Over the summer months, at supermarkets across Ontario, Greta and Janet handed out the Crazy Plates dinners, one by one, along with a letter admitting they'd goofed and asking customers to check out their new product line that fall. "We got great goodwill from the Loblaws grocers," says Chilton. "We got all of our product out and it enabled us to start over. But it was a big move, I mean, it was a huge move."

Meanwhile, in the evening, Greta, who is the team's chef, scrambled to rework the kits. Janet, the marketer and self-declared kitchen klutz, created the Web site. Chilton renegotiated with suppliers and grocers and began looking for investors.

He found an answer at the first door he knocked on. William Holland, a long-time Chilton fan and the chief executive of CI Mutual Funds Inc., one of Canada's largest fund companies, drove an hour and a half from Toronto to Kitchener to have dinner at Greta's 1860s farmhouse home - and test kitchen. "He didn't ask us many business questions," Chilton says. Greta worried that "maybe we didn't sell him hard enough." But the next day, Holland told Chilton: "Call when you want your cheque."

While Holland calls the food business "outrageously competitive," he was swayed by the quality of the food and by Chilton's impressively successful track record. "I didn't even know I was having the frozen food," Holland says. He personally invested $1 million in the Crazy Plates venture, contributing most of the outside capital Chilton had been seeking. A second, private investor put up the remaining $250,000. That, with $1 million directly from Chilton, is the company's funding.

Now, with the dinners - of a better size and price - in Loblaws and its affiliated grocery stores across Ontario, and with province-wide radio ads starting March 4, the next move is to go national. The radio ads are a key component of the campaign, and as with much else they've done, the Podleskis and Chilton are again going against the grain. They are creating low-cost, low-key and low-production-value ads, which means there's no background music, the only voices on the ads are Janet's and Greta's - no hired performers - and they write most of the ads themselves. "We're pretty confident, but we're betting, and so are our investors, that our radio advertising will be much more effective than most people's radio advertising," says Chilton. "That's the leap of faith involved in our business."

The low-key radio pitch reinforces the image of the girls as the underdogs - an image that for now is true. But to make the venture a success, they know they have to grow and have their dinners distributed nationally. Right now, the profit margins, at about 20 per cent, are about half what other food product companies make, says Chilton, who admits he is "intimidated" by the slim profits. "We have to become a really big company to be successful," he says. "We can't be a cute success story." The trick will be to hold onto their folksy appeal, while growing to huge proportions. The idea might be loony, but with the Podleskis and Chilton at the helm, it doesn't look like a loser.

Crash! Crazy Plates Reviewed

So how good are Crazy Plates meals? Maclean's asked the toughest audience we know: our sister publication Chatelaine. Here is Food Editor Monda Rosenberg's report:

To survive in such a highly competitive area, today's frozen dinners have to be a snap to prepare, quick to heat, full-flavoured, good for you and competitively priced - definitely cheaper than order-in. We put all the Crazy Plates meals through a dinner run in the Chatelaine Test Kitchen. And since this product is aimed at busy people with sophisticated palates but basic cooking skills, we asked 25 of our colleagues to home-test them as well.

In our Test Kitchen, the large Crazy Plates boxes took up much more valuable freezer space than if they had come in flexible bags. The large-print directions on the packages, however, were easy to read and follow. All Crazy Plates dinners are designed for the stove and come with four or five pouches to open, stir in, sprinkle on, etc.; there are no microwave directions. Cooking times on the packages run from 10 to 20 minutes. Some must rest for a few more minutes before you can dig in.

When the Test Kitchen staff got to the tasting stage, the non-mushy texture of the pasta, rice and veggies drew top marks. The downsides included rather bland flavour in all the dinners, unnecessary and off-putting sweetness in the two rice-based dishes and definitely not enough food to satisfy three people. All packages state three servings or two huge ones. A couple of our home testers happily ate the whole package at one sitting.

Since the Looneyspoons gals are known for healthy creations, we surveyed the nutrient profiles, based on one-third of the box as a serving. Fat content swung between 1.1 g for the Wowie Maui Chicken to 9.9 g in the Worth Every Penne pesto pasta. The Stir Crazy chicken stir-fry has 4.7 g. But if you wolf down half the box instead of the one-third that the package's nutritional analysis is based on, the fat content for the stir-fry jumps to seven grams. To earn the low-fat label, the fat grams per serving cannot exceed three.

Our home testers gave a collective thumbs-up rating of seven out of 10 for the overall texture and taste of the dinners, but when asked if they would be willing to hand over $9.95 for a box, 73 per cent said no. As one tester said: "I can make my own pasta almost as quickly at a fraction of the price with a lot more taste." The bottom line: $10 may seem pricey when supermarkets offer a range of more flavourful frozen dinners that simply require opening a single package - and microwaving without babysitting.

See also FOOD AND BEVERAGE INDUSTRIES.

Maclean's March 4, 2002