International frozen food court

Broadening consumer tastes and new products are helping to transform
the frozen food case into a virtual United Nations of ethnic flavors.

Want to experience the world? Then toss aside that passport, drop those suitcases, throw on a heavy coat, grab a shopping cart, head over to the frozen food aisle and open the (freezer) door to a world of international intrigue. There, scores of new products are bringing an explosion of spice and flavor never before witnessed in frozen foods—and shoppers are snatching them up.

Sure, Italian lasagna, Mexican burritos and Chinese chow mein have been around forever, but how about Colombian arepas, Filipino chicken adobo, Halal-certified Thai Basil Tofu Chili and Indian Chicken Biryani?

“The growth of frozen ethnic foods stems from a combination of cooking shows and more people going to ethnic restaurants,” says Dennis Moore, national business development manager for Day-Lee Foods, a division of Japan’s Nippon Meat Packers, which maintains U.S. operations in Santa Fe Springs, Calif., where it manufactures the Day-Lee Pride, Crazy Cuisine and Purely Asian brands. “There has been a huge growth in Asian restaurants, not only Chinese, but also Thai, Indian, Korean. What a lot of these frozen items have done is allow people to have a very high quality item that is very true to the flavors of the original, but in a format that is easy to prepare at home.”

Ethnic foods are so hot that they are attracting the attention of the big national players.

Minneapolis-based General Mills is helping home cooks prepare restaurant-quality dishes in just 14 minutes with its Wanchai Ferry Frozen Entrees. Available in nine varieties, including General Tso’s Spicy Garlic Chicken, each entrée includes battered chicken or shrimp, rice or lo mein noodles, crisp vegetables and flavorful sauce. “As the popularity of Chinese cuisine continues to grow, Wanchai Ferry Frozen Entrees are a simple and convenient alternative to Chinese take-out and other frozen meals,” says Pam Becker, a General Mills spokesperson.

The meals serve two for around $7.99, a fraction of dining out. Experts say price is driving the growth of ethnic frozen foods.

“In this economy, consumers continue to work hard to stretch their dollar by eating out less and bring their lunch to work more often,” says Bryce Ruiz, president and CEO of Dinuba, Calif.-based Ruiz Food Products, manufacturer of the El Monterey brand of authentic Mexican frozen food. “And while [shoppers] look for less expensive food options, they do not wish to trade off on quality, taste or variety. As a result, consumers have turned to frozen snacks, like our El Monterey Family Pack Burritos and Taquitos, as inexpensive at-home meal options.”

How about a Naanwich?

Frozen ethnic foods run the gamut from authentic products imported from abroad to domestic items made with old-world family recipes and Americanized cross-overs designed to entice consumers who may be a little skittish about trying something foreign.

Take the Naanwich, which is moist Indian naan flatbread—the staple of Indian cuisine—filled with Chicken Tikka Masala, Tandoori Chicken or Vegan Garden Vegetable. “The Naanwich is the real calling to the cross-over crowd, an Indian entrée wrapped and fried in naan bread,” says Sanjog Sikand, daughter #2, sales and marketing, at Sukhi’s Gourmet Indian Foods, the six-year-old Hayward, Calif.-based firm started by her mother, Sukhi Singh.

“For us the Naanwich took the frozen game for Indian food a little further because it really gave Americans something in a format that they are familiar with, but with Indian flavors,” Sikand says. Sukhi’s products include Channa Masala, Chicken and Vegetable Biryani and Chicken Samosas.

Deep Foods, the Union, N.J.-based manufacturer of the Tandoor Chef Indian food brand, is also courting Americans with a fusion line—Naan Pizza. “We spiced the naan with Indian spices and made it into a pizza,” says Michael Ryan, vice president of marketing.

“This can be a great gateway item. If a consumer is uncomfortable buying an Indian product because they don’t know what it is, they are more comfortable buying something called ‘pizza.’ We are having great success with it.”

It is the belief of Deep officials that once consumers buy Naan Pizza they will then try one of Tandoor Chef’s 25 frozen Indian classics, such as Masala Dosa crepes, Lamb Vindaloo, Chicken Tikka Masala and Chicken Tandoori with Spinach. “The Tandoor Chef brand was specifically designed for the mainstream audience—the average person who has just found out about Indian cuisine and that it is a delicious alternative. People are looking for new flavor profiles, higher spice profiles. Heat seems to be the order of the day,” Ryan says.

Indian offerings also hit a number of other hot-button topics, observers say. “We’ve got lots of vegan opportunities, no GMOs and we’ve got gluten-free products,” Ryan says. “We have a lot of social media going on where we are trying to expose the general public to Indian cuisine and Indian culture through Tandoor Chef and our TandoorChef.com website.”

Latin flare

Most of the general public is well acquainted with Goya—the Hispanic brand has been a kitchen staple for more than 75 years. In addition to a full aisle of grocery products, it offers an extensive selection of frozen Hispanic appetizers, entrées, desserts, vegetables and specialty products. “Some of our unique products include malanga, lucuma pulp—used for ice cream in Peru—jocote, pupusas, loroco—used as topping for salads and on pizzas in El Salvador—and an extensive line of tamales/pastels, be they Central American, Caribbean, Mexican, etc.,” says John Hernandez, director of sales at Secaucus, N.J.-based Goya Foods.Goya continues to expand its frozen product line; it is so extensive that many stores in heavily Hispanic areas maintain a two door set. “Some of our recent product launches have been Chicken Empanadas, Cod Fish Croquettes and Arepas that are manufactured in Colombia, maintaining the traditional flavor of an authentic dish of Colombia where that product is consumed daily,” Hernandez says.

Frozen Mexican foods continue to heat up the category, manufacturers say. “Over the past 52 weeks, ended November 2011, frozen Mexican dollars in meals/appetizers have been growing at 2.1%, while the growth of our Don Miguel brand has been 23.3%,” says Marilyn Vincent, marketing manager for Don Miguel Foods Retail Group, a division of Orange, Calif.-based MegaMex Foods, a joint venture between Hormel Foods and Mexico’s Herdez del Fuerte. “Don Miguel’s growth has come primarily through product innovation and expanded distribution,” she notes. The line’s frozen components include breakfast burritos, mini tacos, appetizers and 2-ounce tacos, as well as Mexican dinners, “Grande” dinners, appetizers and 9-ounce value tacos under the El Charrito label.

Houston-based Windsor Foods launched its José Olé brand in 2000 in hopes of invigorating the once sluggish category. “Since 2000, the José Olé brand has driven 60% of the growth in the frozen Mexican category in grocery,” says Sarah Salvato, director of marketing. “We have the highest consumer awareness of any frozen Mexican brand.” The line includes a full array of snack, appetizers and quick meals. “Our most recent launches are a Chipotle Chicken Taquito and Chipotle Chicken Chimichanga, both of which satisfy the consumer need for spicy items.”

Ruiz Foods also continues to drive growth with product innovation, introducing single-server versions of its popular El Monterey Family Pack Burritos, single-serve El Monterey Supreme Burritos and El Monterey Mini Tacos in this year’s first quarter.

“We have a reputation for using fresh flour or corn tortillas made exclusively in our on-site bakery, literally just moments before they are filled with meats, spices, vegetables and real cheeses in a process from bakery to flash freezer that is less than an hour,” says Ruiz of Ruiz Foods.

Ragin’ Cajun

Mexican food is not the only ethnic food heating up the freezer case. Cajun is all the rage. Oxford, Miss.-based No Time 2 Cook offers a 10-SKU frozen Cajun line, including Crawfish Etouffée, Seafood Gumbo, Shrimp & Crab Corn Bisque and Shrimp & Grits with a Cajun piquant sauce.

“Our entrées serve three to four people and our soups serve two to three,” says Karen Kurr, owner. “Our business is primarily in the Southeast, but we now have the capacity to go nationwide. Up until six months ago we did all of our own deliveries, so you had to be within a day’s drive, but now we ship on dry ice and can ship three days away, which pretty much covers the entire country.”

Cajun cuisine is a mix of cultures, as is Filipino food.    “Although The Philippines are a part of Asia, Filipino food is a little bit hard to nail down because it has influences from all over Southeast Asia, India, Spain and other parts of Europe and now America,” says P.J. Quesada, vice president, marketing, at his family’s Ramar Foods International, based in Pittsburg, Calif. “So we are pushing that our food is not Asian food, it is Filipino food.”

Ramar is distributing a new line of Filipino entrees under the Kusina ni Maria (Maria’s Kitchen) label, a brand named after his grandmother who cooked for her 11 children.

Kusina ni Maria consists of two varieties of lumpia (Filipino egg rolls), Chicken Adobo (the national dish of The Philippines) and a Pancit Kit to make a stir-fry noodle dish.

Ramar is best known for its Magnolia brand of Filipino ice cream in exotic flavors, including mango, coconut, green tea, lychee and ube. “Our take on ice cream is different,” Quesada says. “We use whole fruit purees, most of which are grown in The Philippines on family farms. Our puree content runs as high as 30%, which is unheard of in the industry, giving us our signature flavor.”

The cultures from mainland Asia have also become better represented in the frozen case. San Rafael, Calif.-based CJ Foods, owner of the Korean CJ Foods and Asian Annie Chun’s brands, has been expanding its presence. Last month (January), CJ Foods debuted its Korean BBQ Series, a line of high-quality frozen meats made exclusively with Certified Angus Beef. “This new ready-to-cook line is the first of its kind in the U.S. and will be available at 600 ethnic stores nationwide in Bulgogi, Galbi and Bulgogi Patty varieties,” says Elliot Chung, senior brand manager.

“CJ Foods recently introduced a line of Potstickers, Mini Wontons and Crispy Crescent Dumplings that are made the Korean way, with a higher filling-to-wrapper ratio than other dumplings for a crispier finish and a more satisfying mouthful,” Chung says.

Chung notes that Annie Chun’s recently introduced a new gourmet product line that includes three savory varieties of Frozen Wonton Soup Bowls: Chicken & Clinatro, Chicken & Garlic, and Spicy Vegetable. “The soups are all-natural with no MSG, preservatives or trans fats,” he says.

Windsor Foods is also a major player in the Asian channel with its Ling Ling and Tai Pei brands. “The Tai Pei single-serve packaging is uniquely shaped like a take-out container, creating a memorable eating experience for the consumer,” says Beth Conner, director of marketing—Asian brands. “Our space to sales ratio is extremely efficient due to our signature takeout pail, hence, the items are quite profitable for the space they use. We are currently working on several new products to launch in the second quarter of 2012.”

Under the Ling Ling label Windsor manufactures a variety of Asian appetizers, including potstickers, spring rolls and egg rolls.

Day-Lee’s items include Purely Asian, a meal for two featuring a protein, vegetable and sauce. Consumers can add a starch, if they like, Moore says. “For our protein we use all white-meat chicken breast and for our beef we only use center round, which is trimmed, capped and sliced,” he says.

Halal certified

The Muslim population is one of the fastest growing in the U.S., and to address this growing religious group Stamford, Conn.-based American Halal Co. launched its Saffron Road brand in 2010 with four SKUs of Indian food. “The foundation of everything that we do is that we are Halal-certified, but we work very hard to make the products that we offer very inclusive to someone who is looking for a premium product and is especially looking for a fully natural product,” says Jack Acree, executive vice president, sales & marketing.

“For example, all but two of our entrees are certified gluten-free by the Gluten Free Alliance. All of our protein is raised without antibiotics and fed a 100% vegetarian diet.”

The Saffron Road line continues to expand. “In January [2012] we launched four vegetarian SKUs to satisfy that consumer base. Even people who are meat eaters are doing things like Meatless Mondays. We have cheese lasagna, macaroni & cheese, Thai basil tofu chili and a really unique item called Manchurian dumplings with 100% vegetable dumplings. It and the chili are also vegan,” Acree says.

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