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Marketers are happy to feed kids' craving for dippable food

McDonald's adds Apple Dippers to already fat field of finger food

USA Today, April 8, 2004

To dip is hip.

So hip, in fact, that some of the world's biggest food makers and fast foodies are working overtime to concoct loads of products -- from waffle sticks to fish sticks to apple slices -- sold with dips oozing from disposable cups.

Food marketers are flipping for dipping. The category's combined sales are expected to approach $1 billion this year. So it's no surprise that Ronald McDonald, fast-food's kingpin of eminently dippable McNuggets, is stepping on board in a very big-footed way.

One week from today, McDonald's will announce plans to roll out Apple Dippers -- peeled apple slices with caramel dip -- nationally by the end of April. By June, nutrition-minded parents will be able to substitute Apple Dippers for fries in Happy Meals at no charge. As side items, they'll sell for $1.

"This passed both the parent and kid test," says Lisa Frick, director of menu management at McDonald's. Sales have been brisk in market tests in Chicago and Tulsa. And consider: Apple Dippers come from the folks who virtually invented fast-food dipping back in 1983 -- with Chicken McNuggets. McDonald's sells about 4.8 billion individual McNuggets per year.

America is becoming a nation of big -- and little -- dippers. The ongoing trend of adults and kids eating fewer meals, and snacking more often, has led to a growth in dippable products, says Tom Vierhile, executive editor of Productscan Online, a new products database.

But dipping isn't always about product improvement. Sometimes it's just pure marketing. No surprise: Target dippers are typically kids 4 to 12 years old.

Marketers are responding to a growing desire by kids to feel in greater control of their food. Dipping is one measure of control. It controls flavor. It controls volume. And it even controls shape.

"It may defy logic," says Brian Colin, consultant at Pinnacle Foods, creator of Fish n Dips -- fish bites with ketchup in dipping cups. "It gives kids a sense of ownership to have little cups in front of them to dip something into."

Kids armed with dipping cups can think -- "Mom may want me to eat fish -- but I'm gonna eat the fish my way," says Gary Rudman, president of GTR Consulting, a youth market specialist in San Francisco.

Some nutritionists are unimpressed -- or even negative.

"Making food fun should not be part of a nutritional agenda," says Robyn Flipse, a registered dietitian in Ocean, N.J. Dips typically add unnecessary calories and teach kids to want sweets with all foods. "No kid will ever learn to use a knife and fork as long as these dips keep coming," she says.

Food makers argue that dips can nudge kids to eat healthy foods -- like fruits or vegetables -- that they might not otherwise eat.

Because products with dips span so many food categories, there is no firm count on the number available. But the overall "dip" category has seen double-digit growth over the past five years, says Vierhile. "Dipping is a way to individualize -- and customize," he says.

Others dipping into dipping:

* General Mills. No company owns the dipping-at-breakfast category like Pillsbury Frozen Breakfast, a division of General Mills. Sales of dippable frozen breakfasts have been so huge at Pillsbury that the company's about to vastly enlarge -- and even re-brand -- its estimated 50% share of the $100 million category.

Over the past year, overall sales of dippable frozen breakfast foods are up 35%, Nielsen Research reports.

This summer, Pillsbury will add French toast sticks to its current category of pancake and waffle dippables and rename the brand Pillsbury Dunkables. "Kids found the name Dunkables to be more fun," says Ricardo Fernandez, Pillsbury Frozen Breakfast manager.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that rival Aunt Jemima, owned by Quaker Oats, more recently launched Syrup Dunkers -- mini-pancakes, waffle sticks and French toast sticks.

* Mrs. Paul's. The frozen Fish 'n Dips -- arriving this week at supermarkets nationally -- come with five dipping cups.

Each cup is filled with Heinz ketchup -- the same ketchup sold in bottles. While the breaded fish bites cook, the frozen ketchup cups can defrost in about 8 minutes when placed in water.

A line extension with ranch dressing is also planned, Colin says. The brand also is sold under the Van de Kamp's name.

"If these take off, there will be more," he says.

* Kraft. Over the past two years, Kraft has probably introduced more dip-friendly products than anyone.

Last month, it introduced Ritz Sticks -- which it dubbed, "The Ritz you can dip."

Last year it created Baker's Dipping Chocolate -- small, microwaveable dipping cups with soft chocolate that hardens into a chocolate shell around desserts like fruit or cookies.

Kraft also revised its Handi-Snacks line this year, with side-by-side compartments containing snacks and cheese dips. And it added a fourth flavor, Apple Cinnamon, to the Honey Maid Graham Sticks line -- crackers shaped for dunking.

* Frito-Lay. Since the 2002 introduction of Tostitos Scoops -- round chips with cupped edges that hold lots of dip without breaking -- Frito-Lay has seen annual double-digit sales growth of the brand, says spokeswoman Lynn Markley.

The line's slogan: "The dip lover's chip."

But not every dip is a hit -- at least if it's packed with chips. Frito-Lay is deep-sixing its Snack Kit line of bundled chips and dips. Most people want to choose their chip dips -- not get them preselected in a package of chips, Markley says.

Then, there's Simple Treasures Double Dippers Snack Packs. Never heard of them? Well, that's probably because these dippable breadsticks -- with both chocolate and hazelnut dip -- were sold for only a few months before they were dropped by Tree of Life, an organic-foods maker.

"There just wasn't much interest," says Patricia Carroll, a spokeswoman. "It was too weird for some people to dip breadsticks into chocolate."