On top of spaghetti (and the world)

A Norwood company has seen demand rise for its frozen fare

By Kathleen Pierce
Globe Correspondent / January 14, 2011

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In lean economic times, people often find comfort in the kitchen, which may be why a classic comfort food — the meatball — has been gaining popularity.

Sales of frozen meatballs nationwide are up and a Norwood company is among those leading the trend. Over the past year, Home Market Foods sold nearly a billion of its Cooked Perfect brand meatballs, which are flame broiled, flash frozen, and packaged at a processing plant off Route 1. The meatballs are then shipped to dozens of grocery stores and other chains across the country, including discounters such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and BJ’s Wholesale Club.

“Meatballs have been around forever,’’ said Douglas Atamian, chief executive of 54-year-old Home Market Foods, which he and his younger brother, Wesley, bought when the company was a fresh meat purveyor in 1996. “There is a lot of familiarity, and everyone says they have the best recipe.’’

But few people have the time to make meatballs by hand these days, and that presented an opportunity for the Atamians. When they took over the company, which was then based in Boston’s Newmarket Square, it had just launched a line of fully cooked, frozen meatballs.

“We wanted to sell meatballs to the masses and feed the nation,’’ said Douglas Atamian, who designed computer chips for Hewlett-Packard before buying the meat company.

And it is indeed selling them, in massive quantities. From January to November 2010, sales of the Cooked Perfect brand were up 5 percent over the previous year. From September to November, the increase was almost 17 percent, according to Symphony IRI, a consumer research group based in Chicago.

When the final figures are in, meatball sales nationwide are estimated to have grown by about 3 percent in 2010, to more than $375 million.

Douglas, 50, and Wesley, 43, grew up in Weston and they were eager to own a business with New England roots. In 2004 they moved Home Market Foods to Norwood. Today, they have about 400 employees, compared with 120 in 1996. In the past few years, they also have brought on experienced executives from Kraft Foods Inc., Campbell Soup Co., and Mars Inc.

In addition to meatballs, the company makes Family Buffet chicken and smoked barbecue entrees, as well as RollerBites, a chicken and beef meal in the shape of a hot dog.

But it is the meatballs, which heat in minutes, that have become the top seller.

“People are looking for an easy solution that tastes good. Because consumers are starved for time, we are always asking ourselves, what can we put on the shelf in that portfolio?’’ said Michael Norton, director of corporate communications for Hannaford supermarkets based in Scarborough, Maine.

Hannaford recently began selling Cooked Perfect meatballs at its 177 stores throughout New England and New York. It has been a “solid performer,’’ according to Norton. In the past decade, the amount of space the chain dedicates to frozen food has increased, he said, as “people look for comfort food without much prep time.’’

Once considered a staple food for working-class families, the meatball gained wider popularity during the recession. Bon Appétit magazine named it the dish of the year in 2009, and meatballs have been reinvented as sliders by many urban chefs .

Food-trend trackers say the timing is perfect. While many people have grown increasingly cynical about politicians and Wall Street in recent years, there seems to be unwavering faith in the meatball, according to Jim Joseph, president of Lippe Taylor, a New York marketing firm.

“We are losing trust of so many things — government, banks, and big business,’’ Joseph said. “We turn to a few things that we know we can rely on.’’

Joseph — whose accounts include the Ikea retail chain, famous for the Swedish meatballs sold in its cafeterias — speaks from experience.

“My own meatball consumption has increased during this economy,’’ he said. “We have a weekly tradition that we started every Sunday night, spaghetti and meatballs. We make them at home, trying all different kinds of recipes, voting on which ones we like.’’

Cooked Perfect comes in eight varieties, including turkey and Angus beef. Meat-processing companies have asked the company to relocate to the Midwest, to be closer to the industry. But the Atamians said they are determined to stay in Massachusetts.

“We have a lot of pride to be able to offer well-paid manufacturing jobs,’’ said Wesley.

Douglas cited the state’s “intelligent workforce’’ as a major reason why Home Market Foods is staying put.

And it also helps that both brothers still believe in their mission — delivering satisfaction through frozen meatballs.

“We are adding real value in people’s lives,’’ said Wesley.