A leading provider of frozen Asian cuisine, Kahiki Foods helped reinvent the frozen-food concept. Not only has the Ohio-based company provided consumers more meal options, it has elevated a food industry segment with enhanced quality, convenience and flavor. The story begins with a popular “tiki”-styled restaurant. Dan Harvey describes where it went from there.
Frozen food dinners once provided grist for humor about American consumerism. Remember the sad but hilarious scene in the film “Broadway Danny Rose” (1984) when the Woody Allen character offered his guests frozen turkey dinners to celebrate Thanksgiving? That movie probably initiated the demise a once popular product (try and find a frozen turkey dinner anywhere in your local supermarket).
Also in 1984, director Jim Jarmusch pretty much melted frozen food’s remaining credibility with his independent film classic “Stranger than Paradise.” In a low-keyed, hilarious dinner scene, actor John Lurie pulls a hot TV dinner tray from his tenement oven. His female cousin, who’s stuck with him in a squalid New York City apartment, gives the meal a suspicious glance and asks, “Why is it called a TV dinner?”
Lurie, not wanting to be bothered, quickly answers: “I dunno – you’re supposed to eat it while watching TV.”
While he’s eating, he’s not even watching TV, so his attractive Hungarian female cousin – who is obviously befuddled by American products – stares down into the silver tray, observes an unappetizing light brown layer, sniffs and asks, “Is that supposed to be meat?”
Such scenes called into question the viability of a frozen dinner. But that was 25 years ago. Frozen dinners aren’t a laughing matter anymore. Companies such as Kahiki Foods Inc. have restored the credibility – and the quality – related to the frozen food concept. In the process, the Gahanna, Ohio-based company also underscored one of the concept’s best selling points: convenience. Kahiki Foods, which focuses on Asian cuisine, enables the consumer to have a steaming supper upon the family dinner table quicker than it takes to call in and pick up a Chinese restaurant take-out order, or to await delivery of an entrée at a restaurant table. More importantly, the quality and flavor are comparable to what you find in the best Asiatic-themed eateries.
Innovative restaurant-quality food served up in the home kitchen – that’s Kahiki Foods’ mission and that’s what it boasts. The company’s products are available in grocery stores, convenience stores and membership warehouse clubs. A leading frozen food manufacturer, Kahiki only uses the freshest ingredients in its products. As such, food service operations are among the company’s customers.
THE STORY IN THE NUMBERS
Success is boldly underlined by company figures. Currently, Kahiki Foods produces more than 100 items. Product popularity compelled the company – which has experienced double-digit growth in recent years – to expand its kitchen into a 120,000-square-foot facility. “We do our own manufacturing from our single production location in Gahanna,” says Laura Grenmyr, brand manager for Kahiki Foods. “That allows us to better dictate quality, and it provides us with greater flexibility when we need to respond to consumer feedback. We can turn things around quickly, whether it involves a new product or an improvement in our existing product line. In the process, we have developed a loyal following, which speaks to the level of quality and the flavor profile we provide.”
With its expansive – and ever expanding – product line, Kahiki Foods allows customers to recreate the Asian restaurant dining experience in their own kitchen. Offerings include chicken fried rice, General Tso’s chicken, Kung WOW chicken, orange chicken, pepper steak, crispy honey chicken and sweet and sour chicken, among others – and they come in come in single-serving versions (10 ounces) and family-sized meals (24, 26 and 32 ounces).
“Consumers are looking beyond the American, Italian and Mexican product cycles,” says Grenmyr, an industry insider with a comprehensive perspective. “This has directed them toward Asian offerings and toward our company.”
Kahiki Foods also offers snack products, such as its line of microwaveable egg rolls that come in the company’s innovative EasyCrisp pouches.
Obviously, Kahiki Foods is an innovative company that’s never going to be satisfied with previous accomplishments. Indeed, in February of 2011, the company added four more original recipes to its frozen Asian food line. “Our line includes three different categories – multi-serve entrées, bagged tempura chicken nuggets, and Asian style appetizers – and we’ve added a new product in each category,” says Grenmyr. “One is Mongolian beef with steamed rice and vegetables. It combines lightly breaded beef, a traditional vegetable mix, and a flavorful teriyaki sauce. The 32-ounce family sized dish feeds four. Another is spring roll bites which come in chicken and buffalo-style chicken flavors. That’s in our Asian-style appetizer line. The third is sweet chili tempura nuggets, for our bagged tempura chicken line.”
The new products were developed to provide consumers more meal choices, and each was created with special consideration to their preferences, reports Grenmyr. “Last year, we did a lot of consumer research to better understand why people buy Asian entrées and appetizers. Out of this, we discovered that consumers are looking for something out of the ordinary for dinners and snacks. Taste palettes are changing, and people have become open to new ideas,” she says. “The biggest selling category items remain orange chicken and sweet and sour chicken, but we are definitely seeing greater acceptance for new flavor profiles.”
Coinciding with the new introductions, Kahiki changed its packaging – coming up with a cleaner and more modern design with an updated logo. “We’ve had the same packaging design for quite a few years and felt the need for a change. Specifically, we were looking to remove the clutter,” informs Grenmyr, adding that the effort involved considering how consumers shopped the category and determining what they considered the most important communication pieces. “With the new design, we’ve kept the communication very simple. We heard very loud and clear that people want to know how long the product takes to prepare and how many it will feed. So that information has become predominant on the package. In addition, the look has become very upscale, with a prominent logo and Asian-style colors of predominant red, black and gold.”
Further, the company included frozen food innovations into the new packaging, such as EasyCrisp technology for egg rolls and extra spice packets in selected family sized entrées. “The packets address consumers’ need for customization,” explains Grenmyr. “Many mothers and fathers said that they felt they had to be careful with Asian food, as their children don’t really like heavy spices. So the packets enable all family members to customize the spice level of the family sized entrée. It satisfies those that like it more spiced up and those that prefer a more mild spice flavor.”
FROM KITSCH TO KITCHEN
Kahiki Foods has always been acutely aware of what consumers want as far as Asian cuisine. After all, the company’s roots dates back to an actual restaurant: the Kahiki Supper Club which opened in Columbus, Ohio in 1961. The 20,000-square-foot restaurant had a kitschy grandeur. Outside, customers were greeted by a 300-foot-tall, canoe-shaped façade. Inside, they dined beneath 80-foot-high ceilings, surrounded by fountains, waterfalls, tropical fish and plants, parrots, huge tiki god statues, grass huts, palm trees, and paintings. It was the Disneyland of Asian restaurants and a late manifestation of the “Tiki craze” that became vogue after World War II, when GIs returning from the Pacific arena wanted a duplication of the region’s art and cuisine. Because it recreated a South Seas splendor, the restaurant was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.
Also on the inside, customers savored gourmet Asian and Polynesian cuisine. Before and after dinner, they enjoyed flaming desserts and drinks. The restaurant enjoyed a vibrant heyday. It attracted millions of people who willingly waited in line for hours to get a table. Over the years, the restaurant won numerous awards, including “The Best Polynesian Restaurant in the World” and “One of the Top 100 Restaurants of the 20th Century.”
One figure proved prominent in the restaurant’s history: Michael Tsao, who emigrated from China in 1968 and entered the restaurant business. Subsequently, he took over the management of the Kahiki Supper Club. He would merely be a footnote in the restaurant’s history if it hadn’t been for his business astuteness. He bought the restaurant and the brand, and he later seized upon a business opportunity presented to him.
Here’s how it happened: Kroger executives were frequent visitors to the popular supper club, and they came up with an idea. They saw that consumer demand for quality ethnic foods was increasing and, in 1991, asked Tsao if he would be interested in supplying their chain with Asian frozen entrées and appetizers. Tsao realized that this would complement his restaurant business, so he agreed to provide products under the Kahiki brand name. Kahiki Foods was born.
By 1995, Kahiki Foods Inc. was a fully fledged operation. Initially, the company processed products in a 7,000-square-foot plant adjacent to the famed restaurant. In 2000, the restaurant closed. Despite its historic registry, it was destroyed to make way for a Walgreen’s – a tragedy, but such is progress. Tsao then engaged in food processing full time, from a 22,000-square-foot facility near the Columbus airport. Later, activities shifted to the 120,000-square-foot plant Gahanna-based plant. Sales took a dizzying upward trajectory.
While the renowned supper club shut its doors in 2000, Kahiki Foods continues the tradition, and it’s now one of the leaders in the Asian frozen food market. Its founder felt that all Americans are entitled to the right to experience Kahiki products, and in the freshest possible way.
Michael Tsao’s son, Jeff Tsao, carries on the much-venerated tradition. Jeff began his career with the family-owned restaurant when he was only 13 years old. In 2004, he became Kahiki Foods’ research and development director, taking the company – which has become the United States’ premier Asian frozen food processor – into the future. He’s an appropriate flame keeper, as he has a gut-level understanding of what consumers want, as well as what has made the family business so successful: innovation, convenience, quality and flavor.
No movie-maker can make a joke about this company, and no longer can they joke about frozen foods. If they make fun of this perfectly viable meal option, the joke would be on them.