Fast Food Alternative

HERE’S A lunch time thought:

You can go to your nearest McDonald’s and get a quarter-pound hamburger, a small order of fries and a medium soft drink for just $3.78. After you polish off that lunch, you will have ingested 820 calories and 32.7 grams of fat, with the fat making up 36 percent of all the calories your body has absorbed.

Or, you can go to the freezer in your office and take out a locally manufactured Back to Basics naturally made chicken gumbo weighing 8 ounces and containing no preservatives. Place it in the microwave to heat and eat. After you’ve polished off the gumbo, for dessert eat a large fresh apple and drink a half-pint of skim milk. Total expense: $3.14. You will have ingested 350 calories and 3 grams of fat, with the fat making up just 8 percent of the total calories your body has absorbed.

The difference between a lunch at McDonald’s and a Back to Basics lunch has moved a Kenner company from a trailer just seven years ago to a booming business occupying 15,000 square feet of manufacturing space in Harahan with 40 employees and $2.5 million in sales projected for 1990.

While there isn’t any danger that Food Innovisions Inc., the maker of the Back to Basics line, will overtake McDonald’s as an American institution or as a money-making machine, owner Beverly Hogy Swango is doing pretty well for a 36-year-old dietitian. The same is true for Leon Cabes Jr., her partner, who provides the technical knowhow for freezing natural ingredients in plastic containers without losing the flavor or running up the cost.

Today, the eight frozen entrees manufactured by Back to Basics — beef stew, Chicken Nouvelle Orleans, beef lentil soup, chicken gumbo, clam chowder, turkey chili with beans, Pasta Italiano and tuna tetrazzini –are carried in many stores in the metro New Orleans area, including Langenstein’s, Breaux Mart, Meme’s Market, Paps, Terranova’s, Zuppardo’s, Dorignac’s, Lovecchio’s, Fasullo’s, Casey Jones, Cagle’s and Ragusa’s IGA. The average price for an eight-ounce serving is about $2.30. In early September, only three local stores — led by Langenstein’s — were carrying the line of frozen foods. Now, more than 300 cases of Back to Basics products are being sold each week in New Orleans.

“It’s a unique product,” says a supermarket executive whose chain doesn’t carry Back to Basics but is thinking about it. “They have somehow figured out how to use natural ingredients in their product and preserve the natural taste, without blowing the product cost through the roof. I don’t know if we’re going to decide to carry their stuff but I think a lot of people are going to start experimenting in their food labs to see if they can copy what Back to Basics does.

Whether Beverly Swango and Leon Cabes are about to create a small revolution in frozen food is yet to be seen, but they’re having a great time and making a nice profit in the meantime.

“The truth is that we never thought our product had retail potential,” says Swango, whose voice still carries traces of her native Minnesota. “We were doing quite nicely making low-calorie frozen food dishes for doctors’ diet programs around the country under private labels. But some people here who tasted our dishes said we ought to see if Langenstein’s, Zuppardo’s and some of the other locally owned stores might be interested in a low-calorie, low-fat frozen item that would be unique to them and couldn’t be obtained at the big supermarket chains. We sent out our product for some taste tests and the orders started pouring in.”

The oddity in all of this success is that Swango started her career as a rising star in the laboratories of Dairy Queen, not a company noted for low-calorie or low-fat specialties. After graduating from North Dakota State University and serving an apprenticeship at a Minnesota hospital, Swango made her way to Dairy Queen where she was soon designing new products for the company and coordinating the marketing program. Among her triumphs was a calorie-laden topping for ice cream sundaes and other goodies that is still in use at Dairy Queen.

In 1981, the 27-year-old Swango left Dairy Queen and became a consultant to the biggest names in frozen and canned foods, including Campbell’s and Carnation. She discovered that neither they nor anyone else used natural foods in frozen dishes anymore. “It was considered too hard and expensive to go natural in the frozen market,” she says. “Everyone had moved to processed ingredients that mostly taste processed.”

By 1984, Swango was thinking about manufacturing her own line of natural-based, low-calorie and low-fat frozen foods when she met Cabes, who was operating as a consultant to frozen food companies out of an office in Kenner. They started working their magic in the tiny kitchen of a trailer, which caused some amusement among Agriculture Department inspectors.

“The first market to open up for us was doctors who run their own weight-loss programs. They are always on the lookout for a manufacturer who can provide private label low-calorie frozen dishes they can mark up and sell their patients as part of the weight-loss program,” says Swango.

But the trailer was no place to start producing thousands of frozen food meals in plastic containers — another Cabes idea. So Swango and Cabes went shopping for financing. They got a $50,000 loan from Hibernia National Bank. Then they convinced the Louisiana Department of Agriculture that Food Innovisions Inc. could be the start of a frozen food-manufacturing industry in metro New Orleans. The Agriculture Department guaranteed a $350,000 loan from another local bank.

Innovisions moved in 1987 to 1417 Edwards Avenue in Harahan. The initial staff was seven employees, reporting to Swango and Cabes. The Back to Basics line took off with the weight-loss programs throughout the South, then Swango and Cabes hit the bull’s-eye with the retail market.

“We’re in a very competitive marketplace so you can’t take anything for granted,” says Swango. “But I think our success in the market indicates we’ve found a special niche with regional and national possibilities beyond our New Orleans retail customers. We’re experimenting with some new dishes — including a Louisiana jambalaya — but don’t want to become a specialist in just Louisiana cuisine dishes. Our tuna tetrazzini is doing very well, although the chicken gumbo is still the No. 1 seller among our products. If we can continue to keep our prices below $2.50, with the growing concern about fat, calories and cholesterol, I think we can expand our niche in the marketplace. I think natural foods are going to be the in thing during the ’90s and we know how to do it with minimal calories and price.”

She adds, “I have to say I’m just amazed by it all. This has been an incredible adventure for a Minnesota farm girl who went to North Dakota State and never dreamed she’d end up a Southerner in Harahan, Louisiana.”