It?s not hard to find fast food in America. Nor is it too difficult these days to find food that?s both natural and fresh. But the hitch has always been getting a meal that?s fast, but still all-natural and fresh. The solution is a new genre of meals that?s starting to hit naturals stores around the countryâprepackaged, refrigerated, ready-to-eat complete meals, typically featuring a main dish with some sides. These meals are fresh (not frozen), with all-natural ingredients, and can be cooked or reheated in minutes at home.
Ready meals have been a best seller in the United Kingdom for quite a while, most famously pioneered by Marks & Spencer. The retailer now has entire food stores dedicated to the concept, where customers can wander the aisles shopping for a wide range of ready-to-eat meals, including Chinese, Mexican, Italian and Indian entrees. In the United States, the concept has been slower to catch on but is starting to become big business. Don Montuori, editor at MarketResearch.com, says the U.S. market for ready meals is around $9.9 billion and is projected to grow to $13.8 billion by 2008.
Natural foods retailers are starting to go after this market as well. According to David Browne, director of operations and content development at SPINS, a San Francisco-based market research firm, naturals retailers have changed their store formats over the past eight years to expand prepared foods sections and healthy ?grab-and-go? selections.
?Whole Foods is a great example to follow for success,? Brown says. ?They recognized in the ?90s that their shoppers were wanting more than just a salad bar as a retail offering. Deli departments morphed into prepared foods departments with full-service counters that could do anything from making sandwiches to selling fully roasted chickens [or] turkey meatloaf dinners with hot mashed-potato sides. As they sold more of these items, they made room for refrigerators to market prepared dinners of all ethnic varieties.?
For Wild Oats, the growth in the foodservice department has been in take-home meals and prepared meal components, says Kristy Estes, a spokeswoman for the chain. ?Customers want to be in and out of the store, enjoy the experience, and either have the food relatively warm when they get home or bundled in easy-to-prepare refrigerated packages,? she says. ?Just as important to our customer as convenience is that they can choose a variety of healthy natural and organic comfort foods.?
Browne says the foods that are selling best in the ready-meals category mirror the frozen entree category closely. ?Frozen best sellers like macaroni and cheese, lasagna and enchiladas are also selling well fresh,? he says. ?Retailers can also offer some fresh foods that don?t translate well into good-tasting frozen entrees, like chicken kabobs or ethnic noodle dishes.?
Allen Seidner, a natural foodservice consultant, also notes the popularity of ethnic dishes. ?I?m seeing a lot of ethnic-themed food boxes, such as Mediterranean boxes or Japanese bento boxesâsmall portions of four to six food items that fit perfectly together from an ethnic culinary perspective,? Seidner says. ?I think they?re really attractive, fun and relatively easy to put together, considering that most delis are already making [many] of the items going into the meal. For example, with a Middle Eastern box using tabouli, hummus, falafel and feta chunks, you didn?t invent any new foods to go into it; you have them all on hand already.?
Estes says Wild Oats has piloted a program at its new store in Superior, Colo., with prepared meals that focus on comfort foodsâall-natural chicken breast dinners, meatloaf dinners with potatoes and vegetables, tamale dinners, wild salmon dinners and vegetarian entrees. ?We prepare everything in-house and have found these to be extremely popular items with our customers,? Estes says. ?We plan to introduce these meals to more and more of our stores.?
While conventional grocery chains are employing outside vendors to supply many of these meals, Browne says, for the time being he anticipates that naturals retailers will need to keep preparing the meals in-house because of the perishable nature of refrigerated entrees. ?In the mainstream channel, manufacturers can use artificial ingredients and preservatives to extend shelf life on products,? Browne says. ?Natural foods manufacturers are often limited to local distribution.?
?Perhaps the No. 1 desire of consumers is that they want food to be quick,? MarketResearch?s Montuori says. ?And if it can be fast, as well as natural or organic, then that?s even better, but convenience first is what?s driving this market right now. In terms of natural foods stores, one advantage they have is that they can offer all-natural productsâif you?re concerned about what your family is eating, then you can feel good knowing that you can present them with a meal that?s fast, but it?s all-natural, and not made with any artificial ingredients or chemicals.?
Lynn Ginsburg is co-author of What Are You Hungry For? Women, Food and Spirituality (St. Martin?s Press, 2002).
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 9/p. 32, 36