In from the cold

Natural, organic and flavorful options are boosting consumer interest in the frozen category. 

Consumers are more time-starved than ever, but even with less free time, they refuse to sacrifice preparing healthy, tasty meals for their families. As they search for nutritious and convenient meal solutions, consumers are looking for innovative alternatives across the frozen food category. Retailers that integrate more healthy, flavorful options into their frozen food cases are primed to boost category sales and attract more trial purchases.

“Families used to spend 30 minutes preparing a meal. Now they are looking for recipes that require 10 minutes of cooking time or less,” says Mike Ryan, vice president of marketing for Deep Foods, based in Union, N.J. “As busy shoppers hunt for healthy and convenient frozen ingredients, they are demanding that their favorite brands offer convenient, guilt-free and innovative options.”

frozenaisle2Willing to experiment, some shoppers are looking beyond grocers’ traditional frozen cases and exploring options merchandised in specialty and other peripheral departments. These are core shoppers for companies such as Jacksonville, Fla.-based Beaver Street Fisheries, which typically markets its Sea Best brand in supermarkets’ seafood department freezers.

While Sea Best is known for its frozen fillets and breaded lines, internal customer trend research revealed that consumers are eager for “more exciting flavor profiles and chef-inspired-type of items,” says Bluzette Carline, the company’s director of marketing. “Fish is an important staple as shoppers create healthier menus, but our research also revealed they want new, different flavors.”

These demands helped the company create its new Signature value-added line, which includes premium oven-ready, chef-inspired entrées. Among the newest flavors are Tilapia Florentine, Potato Crusted Cod, and Roasted Tomato and Herb Salmon. “We are rolling out these flavors across four nationwide retailers in February,” she says. “Consumer research is also helping us develop additional flavors.”

This new offering has helped Sea Best expand into center store frozen aisles, creating an opportunity for the brand to increase its customer base and drive existing shoppers to traditional frozen cases, says Carline. “Center store is a relatively new position for us, one that we added within the past year,” she says. “Since these introductions are value-added items, they are affordable and keep us competitive. They also help us adopt a new part of real estate in the center store and expand our reach to a new customer base.”

Ruiz Foods is also introducing new items. “We believe innovation is important, thus we always experiment with new product ideas that are in line with consumer taste preferences,” says Rachel Cullen, president and CEO of the Dinuba, Calif.-based company.

After noticing the growing popularity of zesty, salty snacks, for example, the company envisioned a taquito with seasoning on the outside. “Consumers told us the idea was spot-on with their desire for bolder, more exciting flavor experiences, as well as variety,” she says.

As a result, Ruiz Foods created El Monterey Shell Shockers Chicken Taquitos with Jalapeño Ranch and El Monterey Shell Shockers Chicken Taquitos with Nacho Cheese. Both frozen appetizers are available in 24-count packages. Similarly, the company introduced 12-count packages of its El Monterey Single Serve Supreme Burritos. These flavors include Shredded Steak and Cheese Burritos; Chicken and Monterey Jack Cheese Burritos; Shredded Steak and Cheese Chimichangas; and Chicken and Monterey Jack Cheese Chimichangas. Ruiz Foods also debuted 12-count packages of its El Monterey Egg and Sausage, and Egg and Bacon Breakfast Burrito flavors, respectively.

Innovations like these are contributing to the growth of the frozen Mexican subcategory, which experienced a 3.3% increase in dollar volume for 13-weeks, ended December 28, according to New York-based Nielsen.

Acting natural
Eager to move away from artificial preservatives in their diets, “shoppers are increasingly attracted to natural frozen foods, which has aided in a steady increase in the category,” says Heather Stouffer, founder and CEO of Mom Made Foods, based in Alexandria, Va.

Since this offering is not always merchandised in center store frozen cases, “It’s difficult to get shoppers down the [traditional] frozen aisle,” she says. “Their perception is that conventional frozen items are not always the healthiest options, but we are working to break that misconception.”

Mom Made Foods was launched in 2006, as a healthy alternative to available convenient frozen food solutions, says Stouffer. “As a working mom seeking quick, frozen options for my own family, I also struggled to find options that weren’t loaded with artificial ingredients and coloring,” she says.

Inspired by children- and family-favorites, Mom Made Foods features convenient solutions sourced from organic products and meats raised without antibiotics, says Stouffer. The company offers products in three categories: munchies, meals and bites, each offering a variety of options.

The product line includes Chicken Munchies (or hot-crusted sandwiches) with beans, rice and cheese; Cheesy Mac macaroni and cheese, featuring organic butternut squash, sweet potato and peas; and Meatballs, which are available in turkey, chicken and apple, or beef and cheese flavors.

Mom Made Foods debuted in the natural category’s frozen section, but now the company also has staked a claim in conventional frozen cases, says Stouffer.

Deep Food’s Tandoor Chef brand, which features frozen, restaurant-quality Indian cuisine, has a similar merchandising story. With 80% of its volume typically coming from frozen cases in natural and organic frozen subsets, Tandoor Chef entrées are now being integrated within grocers’ ethnic sets. “Some supermarkets are beginning to realize that Indian cuisine is being accepted—and demanded—by consumers,” says Ryan. “As more retailers place us within their mainstream frozen section, that is the best case scenario for us. It gives more shoppers, especially those who may not understand Indian cuisine, exposure to new options.”

The company’s vegetable-based offerings are gaining strong attention, especially among health-conscious shoppers, say company officials. While not all consumers are adopting a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, “we notice more consumers are cutting one or two meat-based meals out of their diet,” says Ryan.

This trend is sparking interest in the company’s vegetarian entrée line, including its Palak Paneer dinner, which is a spinach and homemade-style cheese simmered and sautéed in a savory sauce. Shoppers also continue to reach for meat-based entrées, including Chicken Tikka Masala, a boneless chicken breast marinated and roasted in a cream sauce.

Kaurina’s is channeling its own Indian roots to address the needs of health-conscious consumers. The Dallas-based company hit the marketplace 13 years ago with its version of authentic kulfi, or “the original ice cream of India,” according to the company’s website. Unlike traditional ice cream, kulfi is made with half-and-half milk that is slow simmered for 24 hours. It is mixed with other natural ingredients, including fruits and nuts, and then sweetened with cane sugar.

“Concerned with America’s obesity epidemic, individuals continue to make more healthy and nutritious meal and snack choices,” says Aman Singh, the executive vice president for Kaurina’s. “However, when they want to indulge they don’t want to feel guilty.”

Kaurina’s is satisfying this craving with kulfi bars, available in single-servings or multi-packages. Each bar is 80-calories and has 7-grams of fat compared to traditional ice cream, which usually contains about 10% butter fat. “The bars are rich and creamy, enabling consumers to indulge in a healthy way,” says Singh.

Frozen gets personal
Once shoppers find their way to the frozen aisles, supermarkets’ next hurdle is encouraging trial purchases across the category. Thus, in-store sampling has become a useful tool.

“Based on our research, we noticed that some shoppers are hesitant to try a new type of fish for fear of not liking it,” says Beaver Street Fisheries’ Carline. “There are many options available that taste good and are also convenient.”

With its in-store sampling programs, Sea Best can help retail partners advertise new items and flavors. “It is a value-add to have on-site sampling programs,” Carline says. “By preparing samples of our entrées in a microwave, we can teach shoppers that they can prepare a great tasting, healthy piece of fish in less than 10 minutes.”

Deep Foods supports weekly sampling demonstrations nationwide, an effort that helps market its Tandoor Chef offerings to mainstream frozen shoppers. “We have developed a few ‘gateway items,’ such as an Indian-inspired pizza made from our frozen Naan bread, that entice shoppers to try something new,” Ryan says. “Sampling also introduces shoppers to the category, especially if they don’t understand Indian cuisine.”

Kaurina’s is also bullish on in-store sampling. Officials say they often find that the risk yields strong returns on investment. “We support retail demonstrations as often as needed,” Singh says. “There is a heavy upfront cost, but having the opportunity to place our product right in front of the shopper gives us the prospect for stronger sales.”

Where retailers and manufacturers struggle however, is promoting the category beyond the supermarket’s four walls. In today’s digital world, the easiest way to stay connected with shoppers is through social media.

Online social networks allow brands to create a community, foster conversations, and deliver promotions that can support loyalty and future sales. For many savvy retailers and manufacturers, social networks have become a conduit for two-way conversations with their loyal shopper base.

“Shoppers often go with tried-and-true brands, making it hard to encourage them to try something new,” says Singh. “This is where social media helps.”

Frozen manufacturers are making their way onto various networks, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. For example, Kaurina’s is active on Facebook and Twitter; and Tandoor Chef has a presence on Facebook and Pinterest. Their overall goal: to introduce Indian flavors to the masses.

“Between cooking shows and social media, there is more interest in preparing Indian meals, but it is complicated to do at home,” says Deep Foods’ Ryan. “Social media has become an influencer to educate shoppers, share recipes and discuss new products available in-store.”

Savvy companies are also learning from their social community’s posts, in regard to “how our products fit their lifestyle, their preferred flavors and what we can improve,” says Singh.

This insight can help keep companies on track to develop new innovations, grab new customers and build category loyalty. “Many North American companies market our foods, yet some consumers still are not familiar with Indian cuisine,” Ryan says. “It still remains a niche category, but with the right tools in place to help us innovate, our future growth looks strong.”

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