New products offer better quality and plant-based ingredients. More innovation to come in 2023.
Dollar sales of frozen and refrigerated Mexican foods jumped 13.8% to $335.16 million across channels during the 12 weeks ended Aug. 7, 2022, reports Chicago-based SPINS. However, unit sales fell down 6.3%, echoing similar results across the supermarket. But on the frozen side of the segment, the overarching theme is that Mexican varieties are outperforming their conventional counterparts.
In single-serve meals, for example, Mexican single-serves are up 9% during the past year versus 7% for all single-serves, reports Emery Volz, who manages the Frontera brand for Chicago-based Conagra.
And even though sales of frozen snacks and appetizers have softened recently due to both inflation and a return to dining out, “The Mexican segment of the category has shown stronger dollar sales and less-impacted volume trends than the overall category,” says Joe Bybel, general manager of the retail business unit for Dinuba, Calif.-based Ruiz Foods, maker of the El Monterey brand. (SPINS data confirms that dollar sales of Mexican snacks and apps shot up 14.3% versus 12.5% for the category as a whole during the most recent 12 weeks.)
LOTS OF CREATIVITY
Why the discrepancy? “We are seeing a lot of creativity on the part of [Mexican food] producers — and new twists on old favorites such as tacos,” says Shilpa Sethuraman, senior associate brand manager for meals and baking at Minneapolis-based General Mills. Manufacturers are also bringing to market new products that allow consumers to enjoy restaurant quality meals at home.
To that end, Conagra recently refreshed its collection of Frontera single-serve bowls, adding four new dishes that incorporate classic Mexican ingredients. They include Chicken Fajita, Carne Asada Burrito, Chicken Verde Burrito and Pork Carnitas Burrito. “Each of these items has a menu penetration of 60% or more, so we know they are recipes that consumers are seeking,” says Volz.
Conagra also added a Shrimp Fajitas meal to its Marie Callender’s lineup recently — the first Mexican-inspired dish offered under the brand. “Shellfish is the second-fastest growing protein in the indulgent meals space, up $16 million versus a year ago,” says Matthew Brown, brand director for Marie Callender’s. “We saw success with another shrimp dish for Marie Callender’s in 2021: our Shrimp Mac and Cheese bowl. When you add the growing popularity of Mexican cuisine, both the culinary style and ingredients of our Shrimp Fajita are on trend.”
Ruiz Foods is also adding a new bowl: Spicy Chicken Chipotle. And it’s expanding its Signature Entrees collection with a Mexican-Style Street Corn with Grilled Chicken variety. “Consumers are looking for craveable and authentic Mexican flavors and these new items meet that need,” says Bybel.
Plant-based manufacturers are also jumping into the frozen Mexican meals segment in a big way. Paramount, Calif.-based Tattooed Chef, for one, is rolling out seven gluten-free and vegan Mexican entrees: Cheese Enchiladas, Cheese Enchilada Meal, Chicken Verde Enchilada Meal, Chicken Enchiladas, Wet Burrito, Chicken Roja Enchilada Meal and Chicken Mole Enchiladas. It’s also adding a vegan Chicken Burrito bowl, reports company founder Sarah Galletti, who believes the category is ready for a more modern take on the “traditional cuisine” everyone always talks about. While your grandmother may have made her enchiladas with meat and animal lard, that’s not how today’s consumers want to eat, making the segment ripe for plant-based innovation, she explains.
For consumers who prefer to create their own plant-based Mexican meals, Chicago-based Upton’s Naturals, recently introduced Fava Taco Style Crumbles. Made from fava beans, the refrigerated product is suitable for a range of Mexican-inspired dishes, according to founder Dan Staackmann. “Offering a good source of protein (9 grams per serving), the low-fat and low-calorie crumbles are ready to eat after just a few minutes in the frying pan,” he says. The meat-free option is 100% vegan, certified plant-based, and free of gluten, soy, oil, added sugar and cholesterol.
Even conventional Mexican food manufacturers recognize the power of the plant-based movement. For example, Ruiz Foods recently introduced El Monterey Black Bean & Cheese Taquitos, the only vegetarian taquito available nationally, according to Bybel. “Consumers are looking for ways to decrease their meat consumption and this gives them a delicious, vegetarian taquito option.”
NEW LOOK FOR DELIMEX
Dollar sales of frozen tacos, taquitos and flautas jumped 15.6% during the most recent 12 weeks while unit sales rose 2.8%, according to SPINS, highlighting the continued popularity of Mexican snacks and apps. To keep the momentum going, Chicago-based Kraft Heinz recently upgraded its Delimex line of taquitos with new packaging, enhanced flavors and double the filling. “Consumers are yearning for a frozen product that offers an experience inspired by authentic Mexican street-style flavors,” says marketing director Andrew Deckert. “While taquitos are not new to grocery stores, we wanted to refresh the category by improving our quality and focusing on great tasting filling and flavor.”
Meanwhile, manufacturers such as Real Good Food Co., Cherry Hill, N.J., are focusing on making traditional Mexican foods better-for-you. “Our Chicken Enchilada is unique to the category because it’s 100% grain-free, low in carbs and high in protein,” says chief marketing officer AJ Stiffelman. “The tortilla is made from natural chicken breast and parmesan cheese, our enchiladas use sauces made from scratch and they’re topped with natural cheeses and shredded chicken.” The product is available in three-packs at Costco stores nationwide, but Stiffelman says there’s more to come.
“We believe there is an opportunity within frozen to bring more Mexican options to the consumer and we’ve started with our enchilada platform,” he says. “In fact, we are working on a number of innovative items to meet consumer demand.”
Ajinomoto Foods North America, Ontario, Calif., has gone in another direction. “As category supply became an issue, we contracted our José Olé brand offerings so we could provide a reliable supply of best-selling items to customers,” reports director of marketing Matthew Troyka. “This, coupled with capacity investment, allowed us to grow substantially ahead of the category.” (Jose Ole’s frozen snacks and apps dollar sales were up 28.1% during the 12 weeks ended Aug. 7, according to Chicago-based market research firm IRI.) Troyka says the company is not likely to launch anything new until fall 2023. “Our assortment is really scaled back to our core, best-selling items.”
But as inflation and accompanying price increases slow demand, supply is likely to (finally) catch up, allowing manufacturers to refocus on innovation, continues Troyka. Ajinomoto has several innovation streams, which include improving existing products and bringing new benefits to the category, he adds.
HOW TO GROW SALES
While the convenience offered by frozen Mexican food is often a key purchase driver, ease of preparation sometimes overshadows product quality, says Volz. “Today, Mexican frozen meals are made with higher quality ingredients and have a greater depth of flavor than consumers may realize, so showcasing these attributes in the frozen aisle is a great way to build enthusiasm for the category.”
A dedicated ethnic meals section could also help spotlight a growing segment within a struggling category, says Bybel.