With a surge of new plant-based and other better-for-you options, the category broadens its appeal.
Dollar sales of frozen and refrigerated Hispanic foods jumped 13.8% during the 12 weeks ended March 20 to $641.59
million across channels, reports Chicago-based SPINS. Even unit sales were up 2.0%, highlighting demand for products that allow consumers to travel south of the border even if just with their taste buds.
But as in many other categories, shoppers are seeking out better-for-you alternatives to traditional Hispanic foods, especially plant-based items that are convenient, too, says Joe Bybel, senior vp and general manager of the retail business unit at Dinuba, Calif.-based Ruiz Food Products, maker of the El Monterey lineup. To that end, the company recently launched a new vegetarian brand called Plantivore that includes Plant-Based Chick’n and Plant-Based Stea’k burritos.
TATTOOED CHEF BRINGS PLANT-BASED OPTIONS
While El Monterey is a Mexican food brand entering the plant-based space, plant-based brands are also entering the Mexican food category. Among the biggest is Paramount, Calif.-based Tattooed Chef, which is rolling out a wide range of frozen Hispanic foods this year, including plant-based Mexican entrees/enchiladas, burritos, and quesadillas — 15 SKUs in all.
“Hispanic cuisine as a category is lagging behind other categories when it comes to plant-based innovation,” says founder Sarah Galletti. “Most Hispanic products are meat-laden and use animal lard. Yet Hispanic food is now more popular than hamburgers in American dining, and its popularity increased during the pandemic. So we saw this as an area that is ripe for innovation.”
‘Hispanic cuisine as a category is lagging behind other categories when it comes to plant-based innovation. Yet Hispanic food is now more popular than hamburgers in American dining.’
Galletti says most Mexican-inspired meal brands tell similar stories about the products being made from traditional recipes handed down through the generations. But she believes the category is ready for a chef’s modern, plant-based take on traditional cuisine. The idea is to build a portfolio of “nostalgic innovation” and make products that are better-for-you and better for the planet.
Planet Based Foods, San Diego, is hoping to do the same thing with its hemp-based taquitos. “We founded Planet Based Foods with one purpose: to establish hemp as a nutrient-dense protein source that can weather the impacts of climate change and feed the planet for generations to come,” explains co-founder and CEO Braelyn Davis. He says the company’s new taquitos, which come in both Original and Southwest flavors, are a good way to introduce consumers to hemp since they’re high in omega fatty acids, fiber, and protein and also offer the convenience sought by today’s shoppers. Davis adds that more Hispanic-inspired products are in the pipeline, including burritos.
Other companies with convenient plant-based Mexican products include Tucson, Ariz.-based Tucson Tamale, which has vegetarian and vegan tamales, and Franklin-Tenn.-based Red’s All Natural, which offers plant-based beef, bean, and cheese burritos and sausage, egg, and cheese burritos. But for consumers who prefer to create their own Hispanic dishes from scratch, Denver-based Planterra Foods offers OZO Plant-Based Mexican Seasoned Ground, which is made from a blend of pea and rice protein fermented by shitake mushrooms.
MEETING OTHER DIETARY NEEDS
While alternative proteins are hot, plant-based isn’t the only diet-specific attribute consumers are looking for in the Mexican category. “The demand for better options in the Hispanic food category is at an all-time high,” says Mike McKeon, COO at Sana Foods, Pacific Palisades, Calif. “Consumers are looking for products that have clean ingredients, meet their unique dietary restrictions, and most importantly taste great.”
For those seeking organic, grain-free options, the company recently introduced refrigerated Street Taco Tortillas. McKeon says smaller-format street tacos have become a staple on restaurant menus and can be used to create a variety of dishes, offering consumers plenty of versatility. “Grain-free has been driving much of the growth in natural tortillas for several years as consumers seek to find better-for-you options in a category that has traditionally been dominated by wheat and corn products,” McKeon explains.
He also believes there is a need for convenient frozen meals that fit specific dietary restrictions. To that end, Sana Foods also rolled out “the first ever” grain-free frozen plant-based burritos. Wrapped in an organic coconut flour tortilla, the gluten-free, vegan, paleo handhelds come in both Traditional and Fajita flavors.
Los Angeles-based Real Good Foods is also looking to expand options for consumers following specific diets. It already offers gluten- and grain-free enchiladas that contain fewer than 4 carbs per serving. But according to executive chairman Bryan Freeman, the company plans to introduce a new product later this month that’s low in carbohydrates and sugars and highlights authenticity.
“We recognize that our consumers who enjoy Hispanic foods look for an authentic, delicious experience,” Freeman explains. “Our culinary team partnered with a family-owned Hispanic food company that will help us deliver on this promise.”
While some shoppers are seeking products compatible with various lifestyle diets, others are simply looking for cleaner labels: natural ingredients, chicken raised without antibiotics, grass-fed beef, etc. For example, Stamford, Conn.-based Saffron Road offers Chicken Enchiladas Poblano made with antibiotic-free chicken, and according to executive vp Jack Acree the product saw a resurgence during the pandemic.
Other consumers are all about authentic ingredients and flavors that replicate favorite restaurant dishes at home, says Rick Campbell, senior brand manager for refrigerated and frozen foods at Chicago-based Conagra, citing the company’s Frontera brand as an example. Frontera includes a wide array of frozen bowls and skillets in flavors such as Carne Asada, Chicken Fajita and Chicken Verde.
IN-STOCKS, MERCHANDISING KEY
When it comes to positioning at retail, Freeman says he sees larger retailers simplifying their Mexican assortments and leaning in to large multi-nationals, which is restricting the amount of product available to regional retailers. As a result, he sees an opportunity for regional chains to partner with smaller suppliers that value that volume. However, Freeman suggests retailers find out whether smaller brands self-manufacture or co-manufacture since co-manufacturers are often under more pressure. He also believes sales of multi-serve packages of conventional Hispanic frozen foods will continue to grow, and that growth is probably only limited by supplier capacity.
But adequate supply is only part of the equation. “The biggest opportunity for retailers is to embrace healthier-for-you plant-based Hispanic food options and merchandise them adjacent to the rest of the category,” says Galletti. “This gives the consumers the option to make a choice for themselves. While the Hispanic food category has historically been a value category from a pricing perspective, we are finding consumers will pay a premium for high-quality products, and the Hispanic frozen food category is no exception.”