Natural Foods Merchandiser

Ready-To-Eat Entrees Offer Quick, Healthy Meals

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 country—prepackaged, 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, 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 boxes—small 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 foods—all-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 products—if 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).

Easy Does It
Allen Seidner?s main advice to natural foods retailers who want to start a ready-meal program is to begin slowly and build on success. ?Smaller stores should not go overboard in creating and taking up space for ready-to-eat meals if it means taking space away from successful individual items they?ve been selling,? cautions the president of Thought for Food Consulting, based in Fairfax, Calif.

Seidner advises small- to medium-sized naturals retailers to start by experimenting with individual products and finding out which of these sell well. ?At a small store, you need to focus on what items you can give up space to,? he says. ?It?s more important for smaller stores to first develop and properly price, garnish, pack and market individual products that taste great, make good margins and are successful. After that, you can determine if you have the space and the ideas to make a successful full meal plan. It?s important not to rush into a meal program before you?ve been working awhile with a full case of successful individual products.?

Seidner says that once you know what works individually, then it?s time to move forward with prepared-meal combinations. ?If you get a creative idea for bringing together various items for making a ready meal, there?s no reason you shouldn?t try it. There [are] great potential opportunities to do interesting and fun things, such as meals with an ethnic theme, or with health or diet-themed products—such as a macrobiotic plate, a low-carb box or a vegan bowl.?

Seidner says one of the important keys to success with ready meals is customer awareness. ?If it?s going to take up that much space in your store and offer that much potential return in margins, it?s worth investing the effort to make sure customers know about it and know what foods taste like,? he advises. ?You have to make sure to get your customers? attention. I?d go with something big and bold, like offering a dollar-off coupon for a month, an introductory price or heavy sampling. Let your customers try the meals—you just can?t beat customers choosing to buy foods based on the fact that they tasted it and liked it.?


Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 9/p. 32, 36

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