Fried rice and potstickers are also outperforming the category as a whole, though industry observers say it’s time for some new flavors.
ike the rest of the supermarket, the frozen Asian foods category saw dollar sales surge ahead (+12.8% to $281.15 million) while units sales dropped off (-2.0%) during the 12 weeks ended Jan. 1, according to Chicago-based SPINS. However, a handful of large subcategories, including both meat-based (+7.9%) and veggie-based (+1.4%) fried rice entrees as well as potstickers/wontons/gyozas (+8.2%) saw their units sales rise. Indian meals (both meat- and veggie-based), Asian noodles and samosas also registered some pretty significant unit gains, though off of smaller bases.
But manufacturers say the real star of the frozen Asian foods category these days is Korean cuisine. “Consumption of Mexican, Italian and even Chinese has declined while Korean food has seen tremendous growth over the past few years,” thanks mostly to younger consumers interested in all things Korean (think K-Pop and TV shows like Squid Game), says Miki Kim, senior brand manager at Hackensack, N.J.-based Daesang America. As a result, “Korean barbecue, Korean fried chicken, kimchi, gochugang and mandu have captivated the palates of a new generation of Americans.”
To meet that demand, says director of sales Scott Choi, the company recently rolled out two lines of Korean mandu (Korean-style potstickers) under its O’Food brand. Kimchi Mandu is offered in three flavors (Chicken, Chicken Cheese and Pork) while Plant-Based Mandu comes in two (Gochujang and K-BBQ). Fully cooked and ready in minutes, all five SKUs feature traditional thin wrappers and no preservatives or added MSG.
Schwans Consumer Brands, Bloomington, Minn., is also expanding its frozen Korean food offerings. In 2021, the company launched two varieties of Korean-Style Crunchy Chicken (Soy Garlic and Sweet & Spicy) under its bibigo brand. Consumer response was so good, it added Korean-Style Crunchy Chicken with Orange Sauce in January.
“Korean fried chicken has gained immense popularity in recent years,” explains director of Asian food marketing Jaylon Rosenblum, citing Americans’ love for the product’s extra crispy texture (the secret is in the batter). Pair that with everyone’s favorite orange sauce, “and you’ve got a winning combination that the entire family can enjoy.”
Stamford, Conn.-based Saffron Road, which recently became a Certified B Corporation, is also jumping on the Korean food trend with a new Korean BBQ-Inspired Chicken Meatballs entree. Expected to hit grocers’ freezers this summer, the item will help meet demand for more premium Korean dishes, says executive vp Jack Acree.
NEW FORMATS & FLAVORS CREATE EXCITEMENT
Outside the Korean segment, manufacturers are experimenting with new formats that better meet the needs of today’s consumers. For example, although traditional eggrolls and spring rolls saw both dollar and unit sales fall during the most recent 12 weeks, Schwan’s is finding success with mini egg rolls that tap into the bite-size snack trend, says Rosenblum. In fact, the company recently followed up its April 2022 rollout of Pagoda Mini Buffalo Style Chicken Egg Rolls with Mini Pork Egg Rolls (pork represents 35% of full-size frozen egg roll sales).
But according to Suji Park, chief inspirational officer at Chicago-based Food Dreams Made Real, maker of the Suji’s Cuisine brand, it’s time for manufacturers to branch out into some new flavors. “There are hundreds of different flavors out there, but supermarkets all offer the same varieties of both dumplings and fried rice — just from different brands. It’s boring,” she explains. In order to attract new users to the category, says Park, retailers and manufacturers need to think outside the box.
For its part, Food Dreams Made Real is debuting a new line of meatless dumplings under the Suji’s Cuisine brand that includes not just new flavors but new shapes and colors as well. The first items out of the gate include Korean BBQ Tacos with Gochujang Salsa, Red Curry Dumplings with Sweet Coconut Sauce, Kimchi Dumplings with Flaming Volcano Sauce, and Thai Sweet Chili Dumplings with Lemongrass Sauce.
In the fried rice category, meanwhile, the company is rolling out four meat-free varieties: Volcano Kimchi Fried Rice with Cheese Sauce, Breakfast Fried Rice with Yuzu Tamari Sauce, Mongolian Beef with Sesame Ginger Sauce and Bulgogi Bibimbap with Truffle Garlic Sauce, all made with natural ingredients and no MSG. “They’re fun flavors that bring much-needed excitement to the category,” says Park.
INTEGRATE OR SEGREGATE?
While manufacturers agree that a more diverse assortment could be a boon to the frozen Asian foods category, there’s no consensus on proper merchandising. “We continue to recommend an Asian destination merchandising model that brings together all frozen Asian food items in a central location because we’ve seen what it can do for sales,” says Rosenblum, citing the creation of Asian destinations in more than 1,600 locations nationwide.
Kim and Choi at Daesang America agree, noting the existence of a separate set for shelf-stable Asian foods. “Yet frozen Asian foods are scattered all around the frozen aisle,” which makes it hard for consumers to find what they’re looking for, they explain.
But Acree believes segmentation by cuisine is a mistake. “Shoppers put an item like ‘olive oil’ on their shopping list, so an olive oil section makes sense. But very few people put ‘Asian entrée’ on their list,” he explains. What they’re looking for is frozen meals, so that’s where Asian options should be merchandised.
“Global flavors don’t require a separate category,” adds Park. “Asian is mainstream now.” n