Innovative forms and formats plus new organic and plant-based options promise to take the Mexican food category ‘on the rise’ even higher.
Like most other frozen food segments, frozen Mexican foods saw a sharp uptick in sales, thanks to COVID-19 panic buying. In the non-breakfast handheld entrees segment, for example, brands such as El Monterey (+18.4%), José Olé (+7.1%) and Tina’s (+33.0%) all registered huge gains during the 12 weeks ending March 22, according to Chicago-based market research firm IRI (iriworldwide.com). But the segment was on the rise long before coronavirus struck.
“The Hispanic/Southwest food sector is a $20 billion industry that has been outpacing average food growth for many years,” reports John Owen, CEO of Richardson, Texas-based Green Chile Food Co. (greenchilefoods.com). What’s the appeal? “We know shoppers are looking for variety and new taste experiences, and 86% of consumers tell us they are looking for indulgent food that is worth the calories.”
“Consumers continue to seek bold, ethnic flavors,” says Victoria Foster, associate brand manager for Frontera (fronterafoods.com), part of Chicago-based Conagra. “And they want to enjoy restaurant-quality Mexican food in the comfort of their own homes.”
GOING BEYOND FROZEN BURRITOS
To that end, Frontera is rolling out two new refrigerated entrees this summer at select Costco stores. Packed in 36-ounce bags in trays with cardboard sleeves, both Slow Roasted Moho Pork and Grilled Chicken come with an antibiotic-free protein, vegetables and Mexican-inspired sauce, all free of artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives.
“The refrigerated meals category is experiencing growth via protein-only products,” explains Foster. “These items simplify what is typically the most difficult part of cooking a meal: preparing the protein.” She adds, “We’ve identified these specific flavors as top, growing flavor profiles on Mexican restaurant menus.”
On the frozen side of the category, Green Chile Food Co. is expanding its Tamaritos lineup with five new flavors: Egg and Bacon, Egg and Sausage, Pork Al Pastor, Chicken Calabasitas, and Calabasitas. Just introduced last year in a Green Chile Chicken flavor, Tamaritos are described as “reimagined tamales.” But instead of using stone-ground corn (masa) to encase core ingredients inside, “We increased the amount of ingredients, mixed them together with the masa, and kicked up the flavor,” says Owen. The entire Tamarito is then wrapped in a traditional corn husk for an easy handheld Mexican entrée.
In the more traditional frozen handheld segment, San Francisco-based PJ’s Organics (pjsorganics.com) is expanding its certified organic burrito collection with four new Mexican food flavors: Sausage Breakfast, Chicken Mole, Adobo Chicken, and Carne Asada.
“There is a distinct need for varied convenience food options that don’t compromise on nutritional value or taste,” says VP of sales Mike Ryan.
“Our new products offer a source of sustainable nutrition while introducing authentic flavors that tap into consumers’ need for adventure.”
Although PJ’s was born out of the Baby Boomer generation, millennials and Gen Z have “fully embraced” the brand – as well as the concept of healthy on-the-go eating from the frozen food aisle, according to Ryan.
“Gen Z has grown up in a fast-paced digital age – and in a culture that is America’s most diverse yet. Both of these elements have contributed to consumers who are adventurous and very open to trying new cuisines. In short, they’re driven by a higher food IQ.
“For these reasons, authenticity is ever more important,” he says. And third-party certifications carry weight. “They have the ability to speak to a food brand’s inherent attributes, like whether it is gluten-free or allergen-friendly, but they also have the ability to speak to a food brand’s commitment to delivering a product that is transparent,” says Ryan.
PLANT-BASED OPTIONS EXPAND
Plant-based frozen foods are growing across the board, and the Mexican category is no exception. Brands such as Sweet Earth Foods (Chik’n Fajita), EVOL (Veggie Burrito) and newcomer Fat Rabbit (Smoky Molé Madness) all include Mexican varieties in their new ethnic-inspired, vegetarian bowl collections. And in handhelds, Glendale, Calif.based Alpha Foods (alphaplantbased.com) is filling white space in the plant-based breakfast segment with two new vegan breakfast burritos (Original and Breakfast Veggie) made with animal-free tofu scramble, meatless sausage, dairy-free cheese and veggies, reports president and CFO Cole Orobetz.
Gluten-free manufacturers are also entering the frozen Mexican foods segment. For example, Chico, Calif.-based Cali’flour (califlourfoods.com) just debuted a pair of low-carb, cauliflower-based single-serve Mexican meals: Chicken Enchilada Bake and Vegetable Enchilada Bake. Other better-for-you brands are also rolling out Mexican-inspired options. For example, Conagra’s new line of low-carb Healthy Choice Wraps includes an Adobo Chicken variety while its vegan Healthy Choice with Gardein Inside Power Bowls come in a Chipotle Chik’n flavor.