The Golden Valley, Minn.-based packaged foods giant this week is launching a unique food delivery service, partnering with supermarket operator Coborn's and focusing on the senior demographic. The service is a pilot, but if it works in Minnesota's Twin Cities, General Mills could take it to other markets.
The company is producing a new product for the delivery service, frozen full meals - beef stew with cheddar mashed potatoes, etc. - under the moniker Betty Crocker Kitchens. The meals will be distributed by CobornsDelivers, which covers the Twin Cities area.
"The key thing we are trying to do here is learn," said Martin Abrams, a General Mills marketing director. "We haven't done something like this on a major scale in the past."
Indeed, no big-time packaged food company like General Mills Inc. has appeared to tackle such a project. And the entire grocery delivery business has been a tough one to crack, even after more than a decade of persistent efforts.
General Mills has developed 25 meals under the Betty Crocker Kitchens banner, including what the company calls "homestyle favorites" such as pot roast, meatloaf, chicken dishes and pasta. The frozen meals, rooted in recipes from the Betty Crocker cookbook, are in single-serving trays with easy-to-open packaging.
Customers can order through the website BettyCrockerKitchens.com, a General Mills 800 phone number, or through CobornsDelivers' website using the search term "bck."
Orders are to be filled within 24 hours, General Mills says. The minimum order is seven meals for $55, including delivery.
General Mills is launching the service with local television ads later this month. Marketing will also be done through hospitals and other health care providers, as well as through Google Search.
The company is aiming to get Google ad traffic from seniors and children looking out for their elderly parents.
Betty Crocker branding is critical. While the mythical Betty is timeless - her portrait has been updated seven times since it was unveiled as marketing tool in the 1930s - she particularly resonates with the new delivery service's target market.
"They are trying to appeal to that Betty Crocker generation," said Terri Bowman Cloyd, director of professional nursing practice at Park Nicollet Health.
General Mills consulted with Park Nicollet staffers and patients at its Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park, Minn., to develop the meal delivery service.
"They met with many patients and with families of older people who were hospitalized, who liked the idea because they were worried about Mom and Dad," Bowman Cloyd said.
Martin Abrams said General Mills did 50 in-home interviews with senior citizens. He even asked his own 77-year-old, widowed mother for advice. "I don't really like how this tastes, Martin," she offered at one point, and "this is what Betty Crocker means to me" at another.
"She was very helpful from a personal standpoint," Abrams said.
Park Nicollet plans to give out free meals to seniors when they are being discharged, as well as information on the delivery service. It will get no financial remuneration from the relationship; the goal is better patient health.
"Sometimes people can go home and not eat, and we know eating is just as important as taking medicine," Bowman Cloyd said.
The service isn't just for seniors returning from a hospital stay. It's aimed at people who may have less mobility and desire to cook - say, a senior whose spouse has died recently. And of course, consumers of any age can order the Betty Crocker Kitchen meals and have them delivered through Coborn's.
St. Cloud, Minn.-based Coborn's, which operates 30 namesake supermarkets, got into the delivery business in 2008 when it bought the failed but pioneering grocery shopping service Simon Delivers.
Simon suffered the same fate of California-based online grocery wunderkind Webvan, which shut down in 2001.
CobornsDelivers, which carries about 12,000 items, declined to provide sales or customer data for its delivery service. "We're working every day to build our customer base, and we have been pleased with our performance," said Emily Coborn, a company spokeswoman. Coborn's is "very excited about the collaboration with General Mills," she said.
Jon Seltzer, an instructor and retailing specialist in St. Thomas University's Opus College of Business, said the General Mills-Coborn's venture makes "makes perfect sense."
General Mills is not well-known in the frozen meal space. So, with the Betty Crocker meal pilot program, it's creating a new product with minimal inventory demands, he said.
And it has potential to be a winner with consumers. "I see all sorts of appeal," Seltzer said. "It will be a question of how does it taste?"