07 September, 2011

Marie Callender's Frozen Lasagna - And How ConAgra Dun Goof'd

Back in 2009 I did a comparative review of frozen lasagna, tasting and ranking eleven different products. Marie Callender's Meat lasagna was one of those products. I ranked it in the middle of the pack in the "Good" category - not outstanding, but not bad.  It was a little wet, a little salty, and much sparser with the cheese than the package art would suggest, but the sauce was fairly authentic-tasting, and I said I would buy it again if it were on sale.

Yesterday morning I stopped in ShopRite on my way to work, looking for a frozen meal I could take for lunch. I noticed that the Marie Callender's Lasagna label had changed - ConAgra was touting a new recipe and claiming that this new "three meat and four cheese" lasagna was "preferred over the leading meat lasagna." I decided to give it a try.  Little did I know while I was eating lunch and taking notes that this very product (or at least ConAgra's marketing of it) was starting to go viral.  More on that later - first, the review.

On the surface, very little has changed with Marie Callender's lasagna. It is still very wet and overly salty and the package art still hugely overrepresents the amount of cheese found in the pan.  There are still the same number of noodle layers, and they are still thick and a little tough.  There is no question that the recipe has changed, though.  The sauce is spicier, with a subtle but noticeable hot pepper kick.  And there is a heavy sprinkle of very green, very grassy-tasting parsley on top (so grassy-tasting, in fact, that it's almost distracting. Quite strange.)  The ingredients claim there to be three meats - pork, beef, and sausage - but I couldn't really tell which granules were which because all I could taste was the sausage.  I can't possibly understand how it can be "preferred over the leading meat lasagna," unless the leader is something really awful like Chef Boy-R-Dee Lasagna in a can.  If this Marie Callender's recipe had been on the market in 2009 when I wrote the original rankings, it would fall solidly in the "Unremarkable" category, below Boston Market's Lasagna With Beef Sauce.

So, given this totally "meh" product, what could ConAgra do with it that would cause them to take so much heat from bloggers?

As reported in the New York Times today, ConAgra tried to pull a fast one on a group of bloggers in New York City.  The bloggers were invited to try out an "intimate Italian restaurant" puportedly run by the host of TLC's Ultimate Cake Off, celebrity chef George Duran. What the bloggers didn't know was that they were actually served Marie Callender's new frozen lasagna while being taped by hidden cameras. The idea was to use what they hoped would be the diners' "OMG THIS IS FROZEN CRAP??? IT'S SO GOOD I THOUGHT I WAS EATING INTIMATE ITALIAN FOOD!!" reactions in an ad campaign.

The plan backfired, as explained here on the Brandnoise blog. Most of the bloggers involved are upset that they were tricked into eating mediocre frozen lasagna by the promise of a specially-prepared meal by a celebrity chef.  But some of them, I think, are most upset by not being able to tell the difference.  (In all fairness, however, the photos on Chubby's New York Food Diary [link no longer working] seem to indicate that there was more than a little food styling going on before the lasagna was plated and served.)

The end result? Most of the bloggers wouldn't sign the releases ConAgra needed to use their hidden camera footage and the NYC food blogosphere is abuzz with harsh feelings for the company and their PR firm. ConAgra, ya dun goof'd.

16 comments:

waldo said...

thanks! this is yet another one i will pass the next time i have a lasagne craving ;)

Leeanne said...

ConAgra goofed, but the blame isn't entirely on them. I have a hard time feeling sympathetic for the bloggers, who were lured by the promise of an "exclusive" and likely free meal.

Like I said, I'm not high on blogger freebies and the overly effusive praise that follows these types of events and promotions. (Which is why your honesty is always appreciated and refreshing, Dave.) And it was clear that ConAgra and the PR firm were looking for an audience that would provide that kind of excessive adulation. It backfired, big time. But I can't really weep for the bloggers who showed up feeling entitled to the special treatment.

Jess said...

That's a fascinating article. I think ConAgra's reaction was mature and productive in stopping the dinner and listening to the opinions of the guest.

What really bugged me was the overall writing style of the article. I found it a little patronizing. The guest list included genuinely good writers like Phil Lempert and Chubby, whose opinions I would trust, yet included a line that I found to be incredibly patronizing about the guests, noting that their position as bloggers was somewhat shammy in itself, saying that they "often see themselves as truth-seeking journalists."

We can't all write for the Times, and although I've seen the annoying side of journalists for small publications who always try to rustle up some sort of conflict to uncover something big when there's nothing to uncover, it goes without saying that the term "blogger" carries some deeply negative connotations that are magnified in this piece. I think that the goal of any good writer is to examine the elements of the subject they're writing on and present their opinions logically and truthfully. Such a skill favors no one in particular, and certainly not all Times writers. (Gael Greene!)

If ConAgra couldn't even please the mommy bloggers, their product must not have been good at all, but acknowledging that kind of elitism in an objective piece about marketing is just unnecessary.

Anonymous said...

So aside from the controversy... What was your pick for frozen lasagna?

Andrew said...

I'm starting to have concerns about the amount of frozen dinners I eat....
Every day, I eat ramen noodles for lunch, and a Banquet dinner for, well, dinner. Plus, I drink a two liter of diet soda every day.

Lately, I've been feeling dizzy and shaky all of the time....

Dave, is this is a result of my diet? Should I lay off the frozen dinners?

You seem like a man who might know....

Andrew said...

By the way, I'm talking sodium content here....

Dave said...

Drew, a steady diet of that shit is totally unhealthy. Even I don't eat ramen and Banquet twice a day every day. If nothing else, get some fruit and dairy into the schedule before you get scurvy or something.

Michael said...

"knowing he was from the Food Network was all the validation I needed. I was sure we were in for a treat."

Says it all. Be thankful that some miraculous blend of genetics and environment has prevented you from being one of Those.

TomW said...

"...unless the leader is something really awful like Chef Boy-R-Dee Lasagna in a can..."

I grew up occasionally eating Chef Boy-R-Dee's SpaghettiOs & pizza-in-a-box products, because that was just the way it was in our house in the sixties.

Since I don't mind cafeteria-quality food in general, not much thought was given to what Mom served.

But I honestly thought you were making another good Dave-joke about lasagna in a can.

Google Images showed me it actually exists.

Plans were to pass on trying it. But now I'm wondering if adding sausage might help...

Tom

Diane said...

LOL, first world problems. "Waaaah, I was forced to eat above average frozen lasagna instead of super-premium, restaurant lasagna!!! I'm going to my blog and whining about it!" If I'd found this on my Tumblr feed I'd have thought this came from White Whines.

BTW, "mommy bloggers" is shorthand for "suburban, privileged Caucasian women who grew up in upper middle class households with mothers who didn't have to work outside the home so they could afford the time and money to make everything from scratch, who are now mommies themselves and have no idea how the rest of the world works, so they think it's perfectly acceptable plunking down hefty hunks of change for baby/toddler products that nobody except for those inside their little insular worlds would consider 'necessities'". So hardly an indicator of the kinds of households who would normally pick up frozen lasagnas. Well, frozen lasagnas that don't cost an arm and a leg, anyway.

Phil G. said...

I generally avoid any prepared, commercial Italian foods, as most of them taste like crap. As for ConAgra...even the name of that firm makes them sound like a company that makes animal feed! Although I wouldn't feed frozen lasagna and that horrid Chef Boy-R-Dee slop to pigs!

Kim @ Foodin New England said...

I know i could tell the difference, they are so full of bologna... hahahaah :) Good post!

Ben said...

Hey, you might want to check the Chubby's link. Either her domain has changed, or, uhh, uhmm.. You'll see...

Say Ten said...

Why does it taste like fish ? I almost threw up....glad I only paid $2.75 for it. Never again.

Say Ten said...

Why does it taste like fish ? I almost threw up....glad I only paid $2.75 for it. Never again .

Gracenotes said...

My comment is this is a terrible lasagna. Marie, or the people who bought the name rights (not sure the chain restaurant still exists), reformulated all their recipes to make them "spicier." I think it's an attempt to appeal to the palates of people who prefer eating Mexican or Asian foods rather than traditional Italian or comfort food. But why would they even buy lasagna when they can buy a frozen equivalent of those cuisines? I was raised by an Italian mother and her sauces tasted nothing like this peppery swill. Their original recipe wasn't great but at least it tasted sort of kind of Italian. Lasagna from scratch is somewhat involved and expensive to buy all that cheese, but I'll pass on this. Stouffer's isn't half bad so I'll stick with that, though it's more expensive than MC.