From the September 1999 issue of Entrepreneur

Clarence Birdseye must have known what he was doing when he first conceptualized pre-packaged, frozen foods more than 60 years ago. Somehow, the budding entrepreneur, who back then patented several of his food-freezing ideas, clued in to the fact that Americans love a home-cooked meal--but they also love popping something in the microwave and kicking off their shoes while dinner is "served." Yes, The Birdseye Frosted Food Co. was destined for success even before microwaves became second nature.

Through the years, other entrepreneurs have followed suit and helped build a behemoth industry that now gathers $60 billion in annual retail and food-service sales. And while most of those sales derive from the Fortune 500s, there's still plenty of room for entrepreneurs to step up to the frozen-food plate.

"What's driven frozen-food sales is new-product introduction," says Steven C. Anderson, president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association. "A lot of the sales come from larger companies, but a lot also come from entrepreneurs who have a good niche product."

"Niche"--your biggest weapon against the frozen food giants--is the key here. Consider, for instance, the healthy children's cuisine of Fran's Healthy Helpings, the vegetarian entrees of Amy's Kitchen Inc. or the gourmet appetizers of Nancy's Specialty Foods.

"As a $60 million company, we don't have the muscle to compete with the big guys--we're a little fish in a big pond," says Nancy's Specialty Foods creator Nancy Mueller of her Newark, California, company. "We compete by having a distinctive product. If we introduced a product that was already in broad distribution, we'd be stomped out like ants. But the quiche business is small enough that the large companies leave us alone."

Cool Like That

Where does the in crowd go, anyway?

By Laura Tiffany

Oh, that elusive moniker of "cool." You thought after high school graduation you could stop striving for hipness. Surprise, surprise: As an entrepreneur, being cool is more important than ever. So we thought we'd head back to high school to find just what these characteristics of cool are.

How do teens determine what's cool? "The number-one [characteristic of cool] is quality," says Jill Kilcoyne, syndicated research manager for Teenage Research Unlimited, a Northbrook, Illinois, market research firm specializing in teens. "Teens also want a sense of ownership in a brand." Other factors include the brand's uniqueness and how it's advertised.

"If advertising can predict a certain lifestyle they aspire to, then those brands are what they're going to be attracted to," Kilcoyne explains.

Want more clues to coolness? Kilcoyne suggests flipping through a Teen People or Seventeen magazine, going to the mall or watching a few music videos on MTV.

The top 10 coolest brands, according to teens:

1. Nike

2. Tommy Hilfiger

3. Sony

4. Adidas

5. Nintendo

6. Gap

7. Levi's

8. Calvin Klein

9. Ralph Lauren/Polo

10. Coca-Cola

Source: Teenage Research Unlimited

Book `Em

If you're already so overwhelmed by your company finances that the words "personal finance" make your hands sweat and heart palpitate, try Brooke M. Stephens' Wealth Happens One Day at a Time: 365 Days to a Brighter Financial Future (Harper Business, $19.95). Each day, Stephens provides relatively painless tips and action steps to help you get rid of your money hang-ups so you can spend less and invest more.

In Hamish Pringle and Marjorie Thompson's Brand Spirit: How Cause Related Marketing Builds Brands (John Wiley & Sons, $29.95), you'll learn how a good deed can be healthy for your heart and your spreadsheet. With myriad case studies, the authors explain how to create a worthy cause-related marketing campaign. Consider UK toilet tissue company Andrex for instance, which used its puppy mascot to help the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, or Reebok, whose freedom-related marketing made for a strong alliance with Amnesty International.

Contact Sources

American Frozen Food Institute, (703) 821-0770, http://www.affi.com

Nancy's Specialty Foods, (510) 494-1100, http://www.nancys.com

Teenage Research Unlimited, (847) 564-3440, http://www.teenresearch.com