Healthy, restaurant-style frozen meals lift sales for retailers
Frozen meals are hotter than ever.
Today's iced entrees are healthier, more sophisticated blends that rival the best restaurant cuisine. Some are made with whole grains and packed full of veggies and legumes. Others are certified organic.
The most popular varieties are infused with flavors from around the world. Asian and Italian ingredients are highly popular, but food-makers are also experimenting with more exotic varieties like Moroccan and Turkish fare.
The newest frozen meals at Boyer's Food Markets, Orwigsburg, Pa., are from Kashi and Tastee Choice. According to Anthony Gigliotti, vice president of sales and marketing for the 17-store chain, chilled choices from these brands touch on all the latest trends.
“Frozen meals right now include healthier foods that are restaurant- or bistro-style,” said Gigliotti. “We have Kashi's new boxed line of frozen meals that emphasize ‘7 whole grains’ on each package. We also carry the new Corner Bistro panini sandwiches from Nestlé.”
The new Kashi varieties at Boyer's include palate-pleasing mixes of Lime with Cilantro and Shrimp, Lemon Rosemary with Chicken, Sweet & Sour Chicken and Southwest Style Chicken — each mixed with multi-grain pilaf.
Kashi also makes other frozen pilaf meals like Black Bean Mango, Lemongrass Coconut Chicken and Chicken Florentine. In addition, the health-focused company has two pasta-based dishes: Chicken Pasta Pomodoro and Pesto Pasta Primavera.
Boyer's assortment of Tastee Choice meals all have shrimp as the main protein along with combinations of rice and vegetables, Asian vegetables and rice, primavera pasta or Mediterranean-style pasta.
“There are a lot of different brands in this category already, and I just had another presentation for a new line called Culinary Delights,” said Gigliotti. “[Culinary Delights] is another higher-quality, gourmet line that is made in America, which is good, because more consumers are looking for gourmet items.”
Gigliotti has not yet decided if he will pick up the new line, but he admits it piqued his interest.
One high-end line he did say yes to a few years ago is made by Bertolli. Varieties include Chicken Alla Vodka & Farfalle, Spicy Shrimp Fra Diavolo & Penne and Meatballs Pomodoro & Penne, among others.
The chain's shoppers like Bertolli's bagged dinners, but Gigliotti believes these and other gourmet entrees are priced a little too high. If manufacturers can find a way to produce gourmet frozens at more reasonable prices, they'll attract more consumers, he said.
“There are several levels of frozen meals. Those that cost $.99 and often sell at two for $3; meals that sell at two for $4 or two for $5; and some that sell at two for $6 or two for $7,” said Gigliotti. “Then there's the upper tier at $4.99 or $5.99 each. Once you get into the $4.99 or higher range, movement goes down dramatically.”
Manufacturers would get a lot more trial if they lowered the price a dollar or so without compromising quality, he added.
Indeed, consumers have expressed an interest in higher-quality frozen dinners and entrees, said Ted Taft, managing director, Meridian Consulting Group, Westport, Conn.
“As quality continues to improve with restaurant-style meals, this further takes advantage of the innate strengths of frozens, like their convenience and the fact that they are as close to fresh food as it gets,” he said. “This also gives retailers another weapon to further leverage in competition with restaurants.”
Jim Wisner, president, Wisner Marketing Group, Libertyville, Ill., agrees that there's a frigid fight going on between retailers and restaurants. But fast-food joints aren't the only contenders anymore. All types of eating establishments are stepping into the ring to compete, he told SN.
“Nearly every new restaurant out there offers carryout now, even many of the sit-down restaurants,” he said. “Most of the new restaurants being built — and some of the older ones, too — have put in accommodations for carryout, whether it's a drive-through window or special curbside parking and a carryout-only entrance.”
Wisner expects more retailers to ratchet up their frozen promotion campaigns to keep their share of the dinner market. He also recommends cross-merchandising things like frozen lasagna with frozen garlic bread and frozen desserts to boost sales throughout the category.
Another strategy lies outside the freezer aisles.
“Retailers could compete more directly by putting in their own drive-through windows or separate registers in the deli and prepared-food departments,” he said. “This, coupled with creative frozen promotions, would certainly help.”
Earlier this year, Publix Super Markets took a page out of the books of Outback Steakhouse and Chili's when it began testing curbside service for deli items in its Fort Myers, Fla., location.
With restaurants upping the ante, retailers have their work cut out for them.
Meijer, the supercenter chain based in Grand Rapids, Mich., recently incorporated frozen meals into its “Family Dinner Night” campaign, a concept designed to get shoppers to plan at least one family meal per week in advance.
In its weekly circular, the retailer suggested a Monday night meatless meal. Menu items consisted of Stouffer's frozen cheese ravioli, Dole Italian salad, Del Monte harvest sliced peaches and Duncan Hines dark fudge brownies or cake for dessert, all of which were on sale that week.
Other frozen meals were promoted in the same ad. For $9.99, shoppers had the choice of Stouffer's 96-ounce party-size lasagna, Stouffer's 57-ounce chicken enchiladas or a 12-pack of Hot Pockets.
Healthy Choice 6- to 12-ounce dinners were also on sale at half price the same week. So were 40-ounce Prego family entrees and 42-ounce Kahiki family dinners at two for $10, as well as Stouffer's 23- to 25-ounce Skillets meals at two for $8.
Tim Cummiskey, grocery manager at Highland Park Markets, Glastonbury, Conn., believes many shoppers have already learned to be prepared. Consequently, they're stocking up on frozen meals more frequently than in the past.
“We have a lot of customers who plan their menus in advance, and during their weekly shopping trips they buy frozen dinners for specific meals,” Cummiskey told SN. “Sometimes they buy them for that evening, but they also know that if they have a soccer game on Tuesday night, it'll help to have a frozen dinner in the house, because it's quick and easy to prepare.”
Convenience is the biggest driving factor for consumers when it comes to frozens, said Wisner. But they're not just looking for minimum heating time. Shoppers want frozen meals in microwavable and ovenable packages.
“If it takes two minutes to cook, but 15 minutes to clean up, it's not convenient,” he said. “Microwave, steamable technology has been a huge breakthrough. Consumers can cook directly in the package and still have fresh, healthy vegetables without the cleanup.”
Portion control is another trend in frozens, including frozen meals. At Highland Park, Bertolli Skillet Meal for Two is a big hit with empty-nesters and young professionals with smaller households.
“Bertolli's Chicken Parmigiana & Penne [in tomato mozzarella sauce] is a popular item,” Cummiskey said, adding that the chain also carries Bertolli's two-serving Spicy Shrimp Fra Diavolo and Meatballs Pomodoro & Penne.
Contessa meals are starting to flourish there, too, such as the 24-ounce Homestyle Chicken Cacciatore made with seasoned chicken, potato gnocchi, bell peppers, zucchini, onions and tomatoes in a sherry wine tomato sauce.
Other frozen dinners at Highland Park include Banquet, Stouffer's, Boston Market and On-Cor.
Along with convenience and portion-controlled products, natural and organic items continue to grow in the frozen category, said Skip Shaw, executive vice president and chief operating officer for the National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association, Harrisburg, Pa.
“Consumers are looking for products like these that address health issues,” noted Shaw.
Frozens with flavors from around the world are also popular, particularly Asian cuisine, he added.
Sales of Oriental frozen dinners were up 25.1% to $9 million during the 52 weeks ending Sept. 8, according to the Nielsen Group. Frozen Italian entrees with two food items increased 13.5% to $32 million, and Mexican entrees with two food items also jumped 7.2% to $11 million during the same time period.
Mars-owned Seeds of Change has a line of organic frozen entrees that take shoppers on a virtual globe-trot from the comfort of their homes. The products are sold at stores like Whole Foods and include Spicy Yucatan Frijoles & Vegetables for a taste of Mexico; Greek-flavored Athenian Orzo with zucchini, broccoli and mushrooms in a creamy red sauce; and Ginger Stir Fry Noodles topped with bell peppers, zucchini, carrots and tomatoes.
Seeds of Change also makes Italian, Thai, Turkish and Moroccan frozen meals, all certified organic and low in sodium.
Highland Park doesn't carry Seeds of Change. It does, however, stock a wide array of healthy dinners from Kashi, Amy's Whole Meals, Healthy Choice, Smart Ones and Lean Cuisine, said Cummiskey.
“Customers want meals they can pop in the microwave, but nowadays they don't want just anything. They want meals that are healthy and made with high-quality ingredients at an affordable price,” he said.