Barefoot Contessa meal range launches in Walmart, Safeway, others

February 4, 2013, 10:42 pm

A range of frozen meals from processor Contessa Premium Foods based on recipes from TV chef Ina Garten will launch in retailers such as Walmart and Safeway, said CEO Don Binotto.

The range, uniting the processor and the host of Barefoot Contessa, will roll out in several major retailers over the next few months.

“Shaws, Wakefern, Price Chopper, WalMart, Safeway, Publix, Ahold, Meijer, Marsh Supermarket all will be shipped product between Feb and April,” Binotto told Undercurrent News.

The launch will be backed with a $8 million marketing campaign, across media, said Binotto.

The range of nine Barefoot Contessa meals includes two seafood items, a chicken and shrimp jambalaya and a shrimp scampi linguine.

The idea came about from an unconnected call from Garten to Binotto, over use of the word ‘Contessa’.

“Ina called personally about a litigation between her and my predecessor [John Blazevich, Contessa founder],” said Binotto, who came in as CEO after Contessa was bought from chapter 11 bankruptcy protection by private equity groups Sun Capital Partners and Main Street Capital Holdings in 2011.

“I cannot give you specifics but the litigation revolved around her use of Barefoot Contessa in retail frozen meals,” said Binotto.

“I said, ‘I’m not a litigious person, let’s have lunch and sort this out’.”

From this lunch came the idea to partner on a range, using recipes from Garten, Binotto told Undercurrent.

Garten has been given full quality control over the products. “This was something that our investment partners asked me, ‘Don, do you really want this in?’ But it is very important to me that we protect the quality of the range.”

The products will retail at around $7.99-$8.99 and serve two.

Binotto sees the range as part of one of “three legs” to build the new company on, another being its growing tuna business.

The “third leg” that Binotto sees driving the company’s growth is co-packing.

“We want to get the plant utilization up,” he said.

When Binotto took over the company, utilization of the company’s $35 million plant — which was the world’s first leadership in energy and environmental design (LEED)-certified frozen food manufacturing plant at the time of opening in 2007 — had dropped to 15%.

The LEED plant is up at 41% now and growing, he said.

Getting more co-packing business, much of which was lost in the uncertain period when the company was in chapter 11 and customers moved away, is something Binotto wants to secure more of.

The company is now profitable again, he said, and the culture has been changed from one of excess to one more in tune with the world in 2013.

“I would say we now have a culture of fiscal responsibly, which was just not in place in the company before, under the previous regime,” he said.

Binotto has made some drastic changes since taking over, first shutting Contessa’s opulent offices. “I never saw anything like it in my days with Heinz, Del Monte or Starkist,” he said of the offices, which overlooked the San Pedro harbor.

The company’s west coast presence is now based in the plant, with Binotto, Benson and the company’s other top executives all based in Pittsburgh.

At the upcoming Boston seafood show, the company will not have a booth and sales and buying executives only go if they have a packed meetings schedule.

This alone is saving around $500,000 a year, compared to Contessa’s trade show spend, which features vast booths and models.

The company’s corporate jet also had to go. Now, nobody flies first or business class, “unless you get upgraded”, said Binotto.

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