But the refrigerated segment remains a bright spot. Will retailers make more room in the frozen set for clean-label newcomers?
Although dollar sales of single- and multi-serve frozen dinners and entrees jumped 6.5% and 7.7%, respectively, during the 12 weeks ended Jan. 29, the two subcategories fell short of the 8.5% gain registered by the frozen department as a whole, according to Chicago-based market research firm Circana (circana.com), formerly IRI and The NPD Group. Meanwhile, unit sales in the two subcategories fell 9.7% and 7.5% — again, further than the department’s 5.8% loss.
Unit sales of refrigerated dinners edged up 1.8% during the most recent 12 weeks, landing them on our list of ‘hot categories.’
But that doesn’t mean consumers are turning their backs on prepared meals. They’re just looking for them in different parts of the supermarket. In fact, unit sales of refrigerated dinners edged up 1.8% during the most recent 12 weeks, landing them on our list of “hot categories.” (Dollars were up 6.1%.)
“Based on our conversations with different buyers and distributors, we expect continued growth in the refrigerated [prepared meals] category,” says Alvaro Hernando, business unit director at Miami-based RevoluGreen!, which offers refrigerated plant-based meals imported from Spain. Although it’s not always the case, consumers often perceive refrigerated meals as “fresher” than frozen, which gives refrigerated meals a leg up with some shoppers, he explains. Plus, the refrigerated section is often easier for new brands with more modern, in-demand attributes to break into while the frozen section is still dominated by legacy brands, some of which aren’t so healthy. And that’s not what today’s consumers are looking for.
“We are in an era of ‘no-compromise convenience,’” explains Kevin McCray, co-founder and president of Kevin’s Natural Foods, Stockton, Calif. “People are on the hunt for culinary shortcuts to make their lives easier, but they do not want to sacrifice flavor or their standards for health and nutrition. That mindset seems to be particularly true among shoppers used to eating out but now looking to cook more at home.”
WANTED: ETHNIC, CLEAN & PLANT-BASED
While refrigerated dinners and entrees appear to have the momentum right now, frozen meal makers continue to roll out new items that better meet the needs of shoppers who want it all. Topping their list of demands: ethnic flavor profiles, clean labels and plant-based alternatives.
Four new shrimp bowls from Auburn, Maine-based Scott & Jon’s check two of those boxes. Made with simple, wholesome ingredients and ethically sourced, phosphate-free shrimp, the newcomers include Shrimp Primavera Orzo, Shrimp Marinara Penne and Honey Garlic Shrimp — all debuting nationwide next month — plus a Mediterranean Shrimp with Orzo variety available exclusively at Sprouts starting in July and nationally later in the year.
Saffron Road, Stamford, Conn., is also expanding its line of globally inspired clean label entrees. This summer, the newly Certified B Corp. will debut Korean BBQ Chicken Inspired Meatballs plus a pair of vegan Indian dishes, Chickpea Masala and Coconut Cauliflower Curry — all certified gluten-free and halal.
‘We are in an era of ‘no-compromise convenience.’ People are on the hunt for culinary shortcuts to make their lives easier, but they do not want to sacrifice flavor or their standards for health and nutrition.’
Another company that eschews meat analogs in its vegan and vegetarian meals, New York-based Strong Roots USA recently added eight additional SKUs to a veggie-based line first introduced last year — making it big enough to warrant two full shelves at retail. The newcomers include Veggie Masala, Chickpea & Red Lentil Saag, Spinach & White Bean Tomato Broth, Black Dahl, White Bean & Lentil Tomato Stew, Root Vegetable Casserole, Baked Bean & Red Lentils Bowl, Creamy Mac and Chipotle Mac. (Thai Green Vegetable Curry and Mediterranean Orzo Bake are already at Whole Foods.)
Veggies are the star of these clean-label frozen meals, which contain no meat substitutes. However, they average 10 to 15 grams of protein from beans, lentils and other ingredients. In addition, the carbon usage associated with each entree is printed on every package, highlighting growing consumer interest in the sustainability practices of brands they support.
Two more plant-based entrée line extensions are coming soon from Chicago-based Conagra, which is expected to introduce a line of Gardein Ultimate Plant-Based Bowls — as well as some new Purple Carrot Bowls — in the coming weeks.
HEALTHIER MEALS KEY TO GROWTH
In the meantime, Gardein competitor Daring Foods, which calls itself the top non-breaded plant-based chicken brand in both natural and conventional channels, is moving forward with its plant-based bowl launch. “We’ve spent the last couple of years building a great plant-based chicken brand,” says Ross Mackay, founder and CEO of the Los Angeles-based company. “But many of our customers tell us that they add our pieces to this dish or that. So we decided to make it easier for them by introducing meals made with our plant-based chicken.
‘Health is still the No. 1 reason people come to plant-based. And while lots of [plant-based meal] brands deliver on taste and texture, they don’t all deliver on health, which is a barrier to growth.’
“What’s missing in this space is clean, healthy meals,” he continues, citing the new line’s short list of familiar ingredients — a key differentiator versus competing brands. For example, “While our Teriyaki Plant Chicken Bowl contains 24 ingredients, similar meals from our three closest competitors contain 49, 54 and 61 ingredients.” The Daring line also wins out in terms of calories, protein, carbs and fat.
“Health is still the No. 1 reason people come to plant-based,” adds Mackay. “And while lots of [plant-based meal] brands deliver on taste and texture, they don’t all deliver on health, which is a barrier to growth.”
In addition to the Teriyaki Plant Chicken Bowl, Daring’s new line includes Spicy Fajita, Penne Primavera and Autumn Harvest bowls as well — all gluten-free, non-GMO and ready to eat in 3.5 minutes. Why those flavors in particular? “We looked at what’s working in animal-derived chicken entrees and went from there,” says Mackay. “Offering familiar dishes helps bring flexitarian meat-eaters into the category. That’s how to drive growth.”
New plant-based entrees are also hitting the refrigerated meals set where Revolugreen! is launching two pasta dishes unique to the category. Both Spaghetti & Plant-Based Meatballs in Tomato Sauce and Plant-Based Strips & Curry Noodles are made with olive oil, which Hernando says is a key point of differentiation. And, thanks to pasteurization technology, the fully cooked, heat-and-eat meals boast a minimum 80-day shelf life (with no preservatives, artificial colors or GMOs).
PRESENTING PALEO PASTA
Pasta is also at the center of new heat-and-eat refrigerated entrees from Kevin’s, whose clean-label lineup is made up mostly of meal components — many paleo-certified. “But our customers have been asking us for more ‘complete’ meal solutions that eliminate the need for any planning on their part,” says McCray. “Pasta-based entrees were a natural choice. Not only is pasta a family favorite,” he explains, “but it is also one of the hardest grains to give up when you’re cleaning up your diet.” (He still remembers how he struggled when illness prompted his adoption of a paleo diet more than a decade ago.)
With that in mind, continues McCray, “Our goal was to provide a guilt-free, gluten-free line of pasta entrees that have all of the characteristics that people love about pasta — bold sauces, hearty portions and nostalgic flavors. We were able to pull it off by using a cauliflower-based pasta and pairing it with our tender, cooked proteins (raised without antibiotics or hormones) and signature paleo-certified sauces.” To date, he adds, “we haven’t seen another paleo-certified pasta entrée.”
Available in both 12-ounce single-serve and 24-ounce family sizes — to cover both lunch on the run and dinner at home — the lineup includes Beef Bolognese, Lemon Garlic Chicken Penne, Chicken Penne Alla Vodka, Chicken Pasta Primavera and Beef Stroganoff (family size only). Each meal contains three servings of vegetables and no refined sugars.
Although space for new items is a little easier to come by in the refrigerated set, McCray says allocating more linear feet for home meal replacements would create a more impactful destination. “Chains need room to expand on the traditional assortment, improve variety and take some risks with more innovative products.” Fortunately, he adds, many retailers agree. “Slowly but surely, most of our customers are adding additional space during reset periods and remodels because they see the opportunity.”