Frozen macaroni and cheese or turkey potpie may be just what some consumers want in terms of convenience, but an increasing number of shoppers are opting for more ethnic variety. While the frozen prepared-food category is up 2.7% in sales to $8.1 billion for the 52 weeks ending April 19, ethnic categories are growing faster, according to Nielsen. Take frozen Italian dinners/entrees, whose sales grew

Frozen macaroni and cheese or turkey potpie may be just what some consumers want in terms of convenience, but an increasing number of shoppers are opting for more ethnic variety.

While the frozen prepared-food category is up 2.7% in sales to $8.1 billion for the 52 weeks ending April 19, ethnic categories are growing faster, according to Nielsen.

Take frozen Italian dinners/entrees, whose sales grew 9.9% to $1.6 billion for the 52 weeks ending April 19; East Asian, up 6.9% to $521 million; and Mexican, up 3.7% to $662 million.

Forty-four percent of those who use individual frozen meals and 49% of those who use family-size frozen meals say they would like to see more ethnic food dishes in their frozen meal choices, according to a study by Chicago-based research firm Mintel International.

Of the consumers who desire more ethnic meals, Chinese cuisine interests more than seven out of 10 respondents (71%). Mexican (67%) and Italian (65%) are requested by roughly two-thirds of respondents.

“The results seem to suggest that consumers enjoy Chinese, Mexican and Italian cuisine but are tired of the same takes on these cooking traditions,” the Mintel study states. “They want to see new varieties of these cuisines — new extensions or twists on old favorites.”

Jungle Jim's International Market in Fairfield, Ohio, has a broad ethnic frozens department that includes 60 doors of Asian foods, 24 doors for Indian, 10 for Italian and two for German.

While many people shopping the ethnic department are looking for single ingredients like frozen wraps and buns for homemade meals, there's been growing interest in ethnic entrees.

“People want the authentic ingredient-type products, but they're also interested in ready-made dinners,” said Bret Vitek, Jungle Jim's international food buyer.

Take Asian food. Manufacturers are offering better-tasting authentic products like egg rolls.

“Egg rolls have advanced so much that they even taste good when prepared in a microwave,” Vitek said.

One of the keys to a successful ethnic frozen program is demos, Vitek said. Jungle Jim's frequently includes ethnic items in its weekly demo schedule.

“We'll cook dumplings and let people try them with different sauces,” he said.

New York-based Bogopa Service Corp., which caters to a Hispanic clientele, has had success with conventional frozen entrees like Banquet dinners, which it sells at 5 for $5.

Like the overall market, “Hispanics are looking more for convenience when they buy frozen foods,” said Suzanne Kuczun, spokeswoman for Bogopa USA, operator of 14 stores under the Food Bazaar and Food Dimensions banners in New York and New Jersey.

But it is also doing well with ethnic items like Mexican entrees and even frozen guinea pig, an Ecuadorian delicacy.

Bogopa's frozen-food department is filled with a variety of Hispanic fare from countries like Peru, Mexico, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina and Colombia. Each of its stores carry different amounts of ethnic frozens depending on the neighborhood demographics. Its Food Bazaar store in West New York, N.J., carries about 25% Hispanic frozen, whereas others carry 15% to 20%.

While ethnic frozens certainly appeal to ethnic consumers like those who shop at Food Bazaar and Food Dimensions, they are also getting more attention from other consumers.

At Jungle Jim's, for instance, about 60% of sales in the Indian frozen category are made from people who are not Indian.

“A lot of Americans like Indian entrees because they don't cost a lot and are healthy,” Vitek said, noting that vegetarians are a big consumer base.

Along with cost and dietary concerns, shoppers are choosing ethnic frozens due to greater awareness about international flavors and textures.

“Consumers are exposed to international cuisines more than ever, and they are discovering it at an earlier age,” said Tim Tsao, sales and marketing vice president of Kahiki Foods, a Gahanna, Ohio, manufacturer of Asian frozens. “Americans have a world buffet of food available at almost all channels, from the supermarket to quick-serve restaurants to school cafeterias.”

Also helping are restaurants such as P.F. Chang's and Panda Express, as well as new food shows on television and international travel, which has increased awareness of the wide range of Asian cuisines, including Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese and South Asian.

“Asian is no longer as exotic as it once was; instead, it is an increasing part of the mainstream food landscape,” said Tsao.

Consumers are gaining an appreciation for sophisticated flavors like lemongrass and chipotle — flavors that just a few years ago were practically unknown in the freezer aisle, he said.

Indeed, Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway markets lemongrass chicken with vegetables and brown rice under its Eating Right brand. It also sells Safeway Select frozen Chinese egg rolls, Eating Right sweet and sour chicken frozen dinner, and Eating Right frozen teriyaki chicken. There's even Safeway Select Gourmet Club Cha Siu Bao (Chinese pork buns).

“Asian foods are analogous to Italian foods 15 years ago, when a surge of interest led consumers to begin exploring that country's regional cuisines and Old World cooking techniques,” Tsao said.

Kahiki recently introduced a number of new products, including a flaxseed egg roll, which contains only 90 calories, is GMO-free and is all-natural. It is also packaged in an “Easy Crisp” egg roll sleeve, which keeps the egg roll crispy when prepared in the microwave.

“Until recently, frozen foods in general had been synonymous with cheap and unhealthy fare. That has changed in the past decade, where brands have proven that foods can be convenient, healthy and taste great — all at a reasonable price,” said Tsao.

Along with Safeway, other retailers are also delving into ethnic private labels. Wegmans, for instance, sells a frozen Asian stir-fry under its Food You Feel Good About brand. The stir-fry includes baby corn, mushrooms, red peppers, snow peas and water chestnuts.

“When you want to eat your veggies, but can't find the time to clean and cut, let us help with Wegmans Asian Stir-Fry,” Wegmans said.

“Each vegetable is cut and individually quick-frozen, so you get high-quality, great-tasting Food You Feel Good About vegetables in minutes.”

Safeway also has a number of frozen Hispanic items, like Safeway Select Tamale Bake, Safeway Select Gourmet Club Mexican Lasagna and Safeway Select Gourmet Club Chicken Enchiladas.

Other retailers are also delving more heavily into ethnic private labels.

In Celebration of Cinco de Mayo, Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market promoted a wide range of Hispanic private-label items, including not only fresh items like shrimp ceviche and tostada shells, but also select frozens, including its private-label Fresh & Easy Dulce De Leche Ice Cream, which sells for $2.49 a pint.

Fresh & Easy's private-label products contain no added trans fats, artificial colors or flavors, and use preservatives only when absolutely necessary.

The chain promoted the fact that the products are not only good tasting and good for you, but also affordable.

“Our neighbors are increasingly looking for ways to save money,” Chief Marketing Officer Simon Uwins said in a statement. “At Fresh & Easy, we believe our customers should not compromise on quality in order to get a good price, so we offer exceptional food that is very affordable.”

Fresh & Easy currently operates 61 markets throughout Southern California and in Arizona and Nevada. The company plans to begin opening stores in Northern California next year.

Ethnic Opportunities

While sales of frozen food are up overall, Asian and other ethnic categories are posting particularly strong growth.

TOTAL Frozen Prepared Foods $8.1B 2.7
ASIAN Frozen Entrees/Dinners $521.5M 6.9
MEXICAN Frozen Entrees/Dinners $662.3M 3.7
ITALIAN Frozen Entrees/Dinners $1.6B 9.9
* Supermarket sales during the 52 weeks ending April 19
SOURCE: Nielsen