Consumers who love Asian restaurants are looking for ways to recreate the experience at home…minus the expensive equipment and extensive ingredient list.
Although dollar sales of frozen Asian foods totaled nearly $1.40 billion during the year ended Aug. 13, the segment took a turn for the worse during the most recent 12 weeks. Dollars fell 8.8% to $276.03 million while units tumbled 8.6%, according to Chicago-based market research firm SPINS. The two largest subcategories, appetizers/snacks and entrees, saw their dollar sales fall 8.5% (to $96.19 million) and 10.4% (to $128.88 million), respectively. In fact, the only product types with more than $1 million in sales that registered gains were curry meals, Indian meals, mochi ice cream, and breaded chicken nuggets and bites.
Despite the recent downturn, Adnan Durrani, founder and CEO2 of Stamford, Conn.-based Saffron Road, says he continues to see strong demand for flavorful, ethnic world cuisines featuring unapologetically bold, robust flavors and authentic regional recipes. “Even though a lot of CPGs went back to their legacy frozen SKUs the last three years to harvest margins, their unit sales are now materially declining,” he says. “Modern consumers are coming back into the better-for-you meal segment. Clean-label, healthier frozen products will be very much the growth engine going into 2024 and beyond.”
As such, he predicts vegan, traditional vegetarian, gluten-free and clean-label entrees will continue to gain momentum, especially with millennial and modern consumers.
Megan Elliott, senior marketing manager for the bibigo brand at Bloomington, Minn.-based Schwan’s Consumer Brands, says she is already noticing more plant-based options in the Asian food aisle. “But not because more Americans are becoming vegetarian, but because more consumers are becoming flexitarian,” she adds, “Consumers’ main reasons injecting more plant-based options into diets is driven by the desire to make choices that are ‘healthier than meat’ and ‘add variety.’”
RESTAURANT FAVORITES…AT HOME
Elliott says consumers are trying out new foods that provide a window into other cultures. “Mostly, this exploration is happening in restaurants,” she explains. “But we see an opportunity to provide approachable solutions for at-home consumption. Our bibigo Asian-style foods make Korean food easy for consumers to make and enjoy authentic flavors at home.”
Over the summer, bibigo launched Crispy Dumpling Bites filled with authentic Korean-flavors, vegetables and protein. Available in two varieties — Bulgogi Chicken with Sweet & Spicy Sauce and Spicy Chicken with Sweet & Spicy Sauce — the snack-friendly, poppable bites are ready in two minutes and can be prepared in either the microwave or air fryer.
Another player in the frozen Asian snacks and apps space, St. Louis-based Crispy Edge, began as a restaurant but has evolved into a potsticker factory. It recently launched a line of gourmet frozen potstickers, distributed through KeHE, that are already available in more than 330 grocery stores nationwide.
“I used to experiment making them in the kitchen of my childhood home with my grandfather,” says David Dresner, co-founder and COO. “My continued passion to create the best gourmet potstick- ers led to the creation of the Crispy Edge restaurant in St. Louis. But the positive feedback we received from diners was so strong that we decided to develop a product line for retail.
A great example of ethnic fusion, the Crispy Edge lineup includes five SKUs, several of which feature non-Asian flavors: Buffalo Chicken (garlic herb dough with creamy buffalo chicken filling), Cheddar & Beef (onion dough with ground beef and cheddar filling), Chorizo Date (turmeric dough with chorizo and date filling), Lemongrass Chicken (black pepper dough with plant-based chicken and lemongrass filling) and Traditional (crispy edge dough with pork, cabbage and ginger filling). But in 2024, the company plans to introduce two new varieties: Holiday Bird, a Thanksgiving-themed potsticker, and Apple Pie Potstickers.
“While the frozen food aisle is brimming with savory options, there has been a notable absence of dessert potstickers,” says Dresner. “By combining the comforting familiarity of apple pie with the delightful texture and presentation of potstickers, we aim to provide consumers with an entirely new way to enjoy dessert.”
FOODSERVICE TO FREEZER
Laoban Dumplings got its start much the same way Crispy Edge did. In March 2020, co-founders Patrick Coyne and Chef Tim Ma opened Laoban Dumplings on Union Market in Washington, D.C. It launched three retail SKUs in Whole Foods in January 2023, but the Mala Beef dumpling became available at Whole Foods nationwide in July 2023.
“We actually worked on this flavor with Whole Foods,” says Ma. “They asked for something spicy, so we developed a few different recipes based on dumplings we’ve served at our restaurant and decided to go with the Mala Beef. It features Sichuan peppercorn, famous for the ‘mala’ tingly spice flavor sensation, which isn’t a widely available ingredient right now outside of Asian grocery stores.”
Coyne says from the beginning the company has focused on a retail-to-consumer distribution plan. “We are directing folks that interact with us online to order via our retail partners’ e-commerce channels,” he says. “When someone goes to our website and clicks on one of our products, rather than adding to a cart for us to mail to them, they’ll be able to add to a cart on Instacart or Whole Foods on Amazon, based on where they are located.
Jeff Lam, vp at Seattle-based Tai Foong USA, whose brands include Royal Asia and Northern Chef, says their most recent addition to its lineup was miso ramen with shrimp, described as microwavable soup noodles with a rich broth. Next up: a mini shrimp spring roll.
“This item is a restaurant-quality, easy-to-prepare appetizer,” he says, adding that a 20-piece Crab Rangoon product is also in the works. “These dishes are too tedious and time-consuming to make at home. The convenience of heating them up in minutes is a game changer.”
Meanwhile, Mona Ahmad, CEO of Saugus, Mass.-based Mona’s Curryations, sees an opening for easy-to-prepare Pakistani/Indian dishes. “Consumers still want to experience culinary adventures at home and continue to hone their cooking skills, but they are also looking for convenient ways to cook,” she says. “Food from our region is considered one of the most difficult cuisines to make because it is very labor intensive, time consuming and requires a multitude of ingredients.” Mona’s Curryations includes four varieties: Chicken Tikka Masala, Palak Paneer, Tandoori Chicken and Chickpea Tikka Masala.
SOCIAL MEDIA DRIVES INTEREST
Like Ahmad, Miki Kim, senior brand manager at Hackensack, N.J.-based Daesang America, says consumers are looking for more global flavors, especially for snacking. “We are seeing tremendous interest in authentic Asian products, especially Korean-influenced products,” she says. “Unique ingredients that come from Korean cuisines such as gochujang and kimchi have gained a lot of popularity that can be contributed to two main factors: the rise of Korean food shows with Korean celebrity chefs and social media.”
She says Netflix, TikTok and other social media channels have generated interest in Korean ingredients. In response, Daesang has added Korean-Style Crispy Battered Chicken with Gochujang Sauce and Honey Garlic Sauce to its O’Food lineup recently.
“Korean fried chicken has been gaining immense popularity worldwide and is renowned for its exception- al crispiness with thin coating,” he says. “We wanted to recreate that for consumers to experience at home with authentic flavors and convenience.”
Totino’s, from Minneapolis-based General Mills, isn’t drawing flavor inspiration from social media but it is developing products that appeal to online gamers. In August, the brand collaborated with gaming collective FaZe Clan Inc. to create a new Orange Chicken pizza roll with a distinctly Asian twist.
“After our successful Buffalo Chicken launch with FaZe Clan last year, we knew we had to create something extra special that would not only excite our fans’ taste buds, but also perfectly complement the rush of gaming,” says Taylor Roseberry, Totino’s brand experience manager. “Totino’s Orange Chicken Pizza Rolls do just that. We’re excited for fans to enjoy orange chicken in a whole new way.”
TRADITIONAL WITH A TWIST
Though not to the same degree as Totino’s, Stamford, Conn.-based Saffron Road is also giving one of its ethnic entrees an American twist. Its original Lamb Saag included lamb pieces; Lamb Saag 2.0 features lamb meatballs.
“We listened to our consumers and did a deep dive on consumer insights, which revealed an affinity for meatballs as an American mainstay,” reports Durrani. “We are gradually rolling out this new recipe to replace the existing Lamb Saag entree, which is already available
at retailers nationwide.”
Suji Park, chief inspirational officer at Chicago-based Food Dreams Made Real, maker of the Suji’s Cuisine brand, is also tweaking traditional recipes to adapt to changing customer tastes. “Asian food products seem to fall into two extremes: the Americanized version of a traditional recipe or the basic expression of a traditional recipe,” she explains. However, “Consumers are craving things that are new and innovative. We are approaching our recipes in a way that meets those demands while still ensuring we have elements of tradition of familiarity in our products.”
Park expects the company’s new fillings — Thai Sweet Chili, Kimchi and Korean BBQ taco — to satisfy consumer cravings. “We’re even tweaking the recipes to include shiitake stems, choosing to upcycle a portion of a trending ingredient that can add both flavor and texture,” she says. “It’s a great example of our commitment to clean label cooking and innovative product development, and we expect our dumplings to make a splash in 2024.”