Natural Foods Merchandiser

Innovations in the frozen-food aisle

In addition to deli offerings and prepared foods, the frozen aisle is increasingly a destination for premade meals and ready-to-use ingredients.

Busy shoppers want foods with the flavors of home without the time commitment. In addition to deli offerings and prepared foods, the frozen aisle is increasingly a destination for premade meals and ready-to-use ingredients. According to Schaumburg, Ill.-based market research firm SPINS, natural-channel frozen food sales (excluding Whole Foods) are up 7 percent over last year, with increases in nearly all categories, including meals, desserts and fruits and veggies.

Though new technologies play a role in improved frozen offerings, the recipe is often the key to flavor. “There are constantly innovations being made with processing technologies,” says Elise Cortina, spokeswoman for the American Frozen Food Institute, based in McLean, Va. “But I think improvements are really about quality ingredients, and perhaps fewer ingredients.”

Ingredients: the source of flavor

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that tasty flavors start with great ingredients. Take the frozen berries from Stahlbush Island Farms in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. “I’m looking for cultivars outstanding in color, flavor and natural sugars,” says Karla Chambers, co-owner of the farm that has been in her family for 126 years. “The northwest totem is a traditional strawberry variety so high in sugar that it’s too fragile to ship. Because we freeze, we can offer that strawberry 52 weeks a year.”

For frozen meals, the ingredients are equally important. “Many competitors will buy precut vegetables and meats and simply assemble them,” says Levon Kurkjian, vice president of marketing for Kettle Cuisine, a frozen soup manufacturer based in Chelsea, Mass. “We buy raw ingredients all the way through and, though we do use some technology such as potato-peeling and carrot-slicing machines, there are no preprocessed ingredients.”

It’s not just the ingredients, but what’s done with them that can also impact flavor.

 “We use heirloom recipes and roll out our pie crusts by hand,” says Chris Licata, president of Blake’s All Natural Foods in Concord, N.H., known for its natural and organic pot pies. “That’s more important than fancy processing procedures or secret ingredients to brighten the flavor.”

Similarly, Boulder, Colo.-based Evol Burritos slow roasts and specially grills ingredients to make sure its products pack a punch. “We want our ingredients to have integrity, with big chunks of fire-grilled steak and chicken,” says Danielle Winslow, spokeswoman for the company. “When you open it up, you see corn and pepper instead of something overly processed.”

Technologies for freshness

Many producers opt for flash freezing, a process that helps lock in flavor and nutrients while ensuring food safety. “Our spiral freezer runs well below zero and is our workhorse; don’t get into the frozen business unless you invest in a high-capacity quick-freeze system,” says C. Scott Riddle, vice president of sales and marketing for The Food Collective, an Irvine, Calif.-based manufacturer of the Helen’s Kitchen and Organic Bistro lines.

At Stahlbush Island Farms, for example, blueberries, Marion blackberries and strawberries go immediately from harvest to refrigeration. “Typically within two to six hours, the berries are washed, cleaned and sent through the freeze tunnel,” Chambers says. “This speed is what allows us to grow delicate heirloom varieties.”

Merchandising frozen flavors

“Our research shows that over 70 percent of consumers buy frozen [prepared] foods,” says Danielle Winslow, spokeswoman for Boulder, Colo.-based Evol Burritos. “But most are embarrassed and not proud of sharing this.”

How can retailers help shoppers overcome this resistance and embrace frozen options? “There are a lot of pretty boxes on the retail shelf, so the challenge is getting above the noise,” says C. Scott Riddle, vice president of sales and marketing for The Food Collective, an Irvine, Calif.-based manufacturer of the Helen’s Kitchen and Organic Bistro lines. “The store personnel and consumers need to taste the products. Coupons, shelf tags and door clings also help drive that traffic.”

“With premium products, sampling also goes a long way,” says Levon Kurkjian, vice president of marketing for Kettle Cuisine, a frozen soup manufacturer based in Chelsea, Mass. “Before consumers taste these products, the price might seem high, but we’ve found once we put our food in someone’s mouth, the price seems extraordinarily reasonable.”

Mitchell Clute is a freelance journalist who loves good food, whether fresh or frozen.

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