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Skillet Savvy

The perennial question of what's for dinner tonight has recently gotten a lot more complicated. Shoppers still crave the rich restaurant fare to which they've grown accustomed, but many lack the funds to eat out while not possessing the time or skills required to plan and prepare gourmet meals at home. Consumers are finding quick and easy answers, though, in upscale, heat-and-eat frozen meal kits

The perennial question of “what's for dinner tonight” has recently gotten a lot more complicated.

Shoppers still crave the rich restaurant fare to which they've grown accustomed, but many lack the funds to eat out while not possessing the time or skills required to plan and prepare gourmet meals at home.

Consumers are finding quick and easy answers, though, in upscale, heat-and-eat frozen meal kits that contain most or all of the ingredients required for a restaurant-quality meal.

Home chefs can simply mix the contents of these kits together in a skillet and heat them. High-end meals like steak rigatoni with portobello mushrooms, or shrimp and penne primavera, can be served up in less than 10 minutes.

“It's a little more time-consuming [than simply popping an entree in the microwave], but consumers are willing to pay the money to have that experience at home, especially if they go to the beer and wine department to get something to go with it,” said Gary Landrum, department manager of frozen and dairy at Jungle Jim's International Market, Fairfield, Ohio.

Commercials that show diners enjoying gourmet meals like rosemary chicken, linguine and cherry tomatoes along with a glass of wine have helped contribute to the upscale appeal of these kits.

Also helping to drive the segment's growth are the nation's tightening purse strings. Although shoppers are interested in enjoying better dining experiences at home, they're finding the cost of fully prepared meals to be too prohibitive.

“The whole [frozen] category is growing as the economy gets tighter,” said Dave Gaither, Center Store category manger of frozen foods for Schnuck Markets, St. Louis. “People are not going out to eat as much, due to higher gas prices.”

Consumers also like this kind of meal because it gets them involved in preparation, but it doesn't require that they know how to cook.

“Mothers feel that by doing some prep work, they're adding something to the meal,” said Gaither. “It makes people feel like they're really cooking.”

Marcia Mogelonsky, senior research analyst with Mintel International Group, Chicago, concurs.

“People want to return to a semblance of what's normal, but people don't have the knowledge or the time to cook anymore,” she said.

Shoppers also see value in frozen fare, since it poses a minimal risk of spoilage and still tastes fresh when it's cooked.

“Mothers are feeling better about putting this food in front of their kids, because it's more like real food, and it feels fresher,” said Brad Lindsey, director of sales and marketing for Town & Country Markets, Seattle. “More and more people are looking to buy these kits, since they're sexier [than frozen entrees], and people can experiment by adding extra spices.”

The frozen meal kits fit nicely in between scratch cooking and restaurant meals because they save customers money, but don't require that consumers give up time, said Mogelonsky.

“I think people cook only on the weekend, because it requires time and forethought to buy all the ingredients to just get started,” she said.

In fact, a Mintel consumer survey shows that 89% of respondents said they eat frozen meals primarily for convenience.

And data at Jungle Jim's backs this up. Landrum pointed out that straightforward microwavable frozen entrees outsell the skillet meals, since people only have time for the skillet meals once or twice a week.

“Most families are looking for something quick and convenient, because they're on a tight time schedule,” he explained.

Landrum has noticed an increase in sales of the skillet dinners on weekends, when professionals tend to have more time. These people and young parents are the big consumers of these meals. Conversely, lower-income consumers prefer more affordable frozen entrees like those marketed by Banquet and Swanson.

Bird's Eye was the first company to launch products in the meal kit category — as long as a decade ago. The company launched its Voila! line in 1998 and then extended it two years later. There are 14 single-serving products in this lineup, and four family-sized 32-ounce bags, with full meals that require no additional ingredients. Varieties range from Garlic Chicken to Cheesy Macaroni Beef and Shrimp Scampi.

But the biggest sellers are marketed by Bertolli, which launched four varieties of Mediterranean Style pasta meals last year. Varieties include Chicken, Rigatoni & Broccoli; Rosemary Chicken, Linguine & Cherry Tomatoes; Garlic Shrimp, Penne & Cherry Tomatoes; and Shrimp & Penne Primavera. The company added a Steak, Rigatoni & Portobello Mushrooms dinner this past June, due to increasing demand.

Jungle Jim's carries Bertolli's Mediterranean Style dinners, which are the high end of what the store offers, compared to Stouffer's and Banquet meals, for example.

“You'd see a dramatic increase in quality and taste from Banquet to Stouffer's to Bertolli, so you can see where your money's going,” said Landrum.

Schnucks carries two brands of skillet meals — Bertolli, and a new Joy of Cooking line from Bellisio Foods. The latter line of 22 dishes includes entrees, such as Macaroni and Cheese, Roasted Herb Chicken and Linguine Shrimp; sides of Glazed Asparagus Tips and Mashed Potatoes; and three different varieties of bread. The meals have only been available in Schnucks stores since July. The brand is being tested in a few local markets before a possible national rollout, Gaither explained.

The Joy of Cooking meals are a little higher in cost than Bertolli, he said. Prices of the entrees are $8.99 to serve four people, while the side dishes cost $3.79 and the bread $3.89.

In October, the chain will promote the entire line with a 25% off offer, “which will allow customers to buy some of everything and try it,” he said. Although the stores haven't promoted these items yet, customers are finding them in the freezer cases, and sales are strong.

The Bertolli meals, which feed two people, cost $5.49 at Schnucks and are promoted approximately once every three months for $4.99.

In terms of which are the best types of frozen entrees to carry, the old standbys do well.

At Schnucks, Italian is the hot seller, followed by Mexican and Asian. And at Town & Country, anything with chicken, especially if it combines chicken and vegetables, is a good seller, as well as family favorites like pasta alfredo dishes, said Lindsey.

Italian frozen entrees are also the biggest sellers at Jungle Jim's, according to Landrum, so Bertolli's line of four pasta meals fits the bill perfectly.

Jungle Jim's frozen meals are grouped in its freezers by brand, and by price within the brands. The most expensive products, which include the Bertolli Mediterranean Style meals, are placed on the center shelves, while the mid-priced products are in the top of the cases and the more budget-friendly meals at the bottom.

First-Class Frozens

Ready-to-eat meals are convenient when immediately consumed, but refrigerated varieties have a limited shelf life.

To help ensure that meals are fresh when shoppers are ready for them, Akron, Ohio-based West Point Market began preparing and freezing oven-ready meals in-house.

Sales of the dishes, which include Pecan-Crusted Salmon, Chicken and Beef Pot Pies, Bourbon Beef Kebabs and Chicken Stuffed With Apple and Brie, are up 12% compared to this time last year. The space dedicated to the meals has been expanded from one freezer door to three.

“Sales are up because of the economy and because everyone's busy,” said Tom Loraditch, West Point Market's executive chef. “Some people stop by and get all their food for the week [from our freezers].”

The upscale meal selections change with the seasons and with trends in the industry, said Loraditch.

“We look at what restaurants are serving and go with the flow.”

Most of these meals feed two to four people, and prices are reasonable: $6.49 for an individual pot pie, or $8.99 for a family-sized one.

“Our shoppers aren't as cost-conscious as in other places,” said Loraditch, “so it's convenience that's driving this.”

West Point Market doesn't advertise these homemade frozen foods, because they market themselves, Loraditch said.