Product Spotlight: A vegetarian feast – in your hand

Busy Gen Yers or the flavor affluent will find Forkless Gourmet bun meals interesting and worth another purchase.

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By Hollis Ashman and Jacqueline Beckley, Consumer Understanding Editors

Hand-held foods have been a mainstay of humanity. Two pieces of matzohs with chopped nuts, apples, spices and wine eaten by the famous rabbi Hillel the Elder in the first century B.C. may be the first documented sandwich. Since then, we have used bread, wraps, tortillas and pitas to make this hand-held mini-meal.

Hot Pockets, a brand developed by Chef America Inc. in the 1980s, moved this technology forward by freezing wrapped sandwiches for later warming in the microwave.

Meanwhile, finding a gourmet, ethnic-inspired, non-meat-based protein food has been difficult. Vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores are looking for better foods that taste great. Trader Joe’s has become a leader in offering gourmet, vegetarian alternatives to popular traditional fare like Hot Pockets. Whole Foods also has some offerings.

Just a year ago, Forkless Gourmet with its Gourmet Bun Meals saw a way to give people authentic ethnic warm meals all wrapped up in a bun. These products had all natural ingredients, signature sauces, oven baked covers and that touch of ethnicity, playing to either the meat or non-meat person who wants to eat on the go and have great taste without a mess.

Understanding the marketplace

Sandwiches always have been an American choice. Sandwiches are the fifth most popular item to eat in-home on Super Bowl Sunday, yet we are preparing 13 percent fewer cold sandwiches today at home. The frozen meal market is estimated at $7.6 billion and is perceived to be fairly mature. However, the frozen snack roll market, which incorporates frozen sandwiches, grew more than 20 percent, according to Mintel International.

Gourmet and ethnic food interests are driven by a desire to satisfy social, emotional and financial goals. So the quest to experience all things Asian or the expansive Mexican kitchen of Rick Bayless becomes the opportunity to realize small pleasures that can make people feel better about themselves for small expenditures of money.

Asian foods have grown 11 percent between 2001-2003, according to Specialty Food magazine. The Food Marketing Institute suggests 7 out of 10 shoppers age 25-39 purchase ethnic foods at least once a month, while frozen Asian snacks are up 50 percent and frozen Mexican snacks are up 142 percent between 1997 and 2002, according to Mintel.

Expand this circle a little further into areas of vegetarianism and raw foods, categories considered part of the "new" lifestyle-based healthy pyramid, and you see the opportunity for Forkless Gourmet.

Forkless Gourmet is leveraging its original bun meal knowledge base to create a hand-held version of an authentic ethnic meal, positioned for the consumer who is taste savvy, ingredient aware, nutritionally oriented and wants real ingredients like organic tofu, grilled mushrooms, and edamame. This product appears to be unique in its bun approach and ingredient blends that are not yet mainstream.

Insights

Gourmet taste in a convenient form can meet a whole series of higher-level desires. Providing health and gourmet on the go address a desire to feel good and to indulge at the same time.

Bread is a subject reviewed in both our Healthy You! and Crave It! studies, which integrate 30 conjoint studies to generate a database that can be used to understand the experience of foods. What we learn about bread in Crave It! is that attributes and emotions are the foundations that drive bread craving. Healthy bread is about taste, price, brand, health, amount of fat and appearance.

Freshness, lots of flavor, a joy for the senses and home cooking are important trade-off elements for bread. So are elements like premium quality and real, simple ingredients. Attributes that are important to healthy frozen meals are taste, price, portion size, appearance, amount of fat, calories, brand, convenience, healthiness, variety, quality and amount of salt. Key trade-offs for frozen meals are traditional meals, indulgent meals, tender and juicy, and heartiness.

Trends: Convenience and health are longstanding consumer trends. The interlocking concerns about health and diet’s impact on health and beauty relate to both food and attitudes toward obesity. Another trend is stress. But consumption of ethnic and gourmet foods can create small "get-aways" in one’s life.

What is gourmet? This is the highest level of an authentic product. The product must go beyond the basic attributes of the product category to deliver differentiating attributes such as appearance, flavor or texture ... and then it must delight with some special twist, such as country of origin, special quality or unique design in product or package. A price premium is both warranted and adds to this experience, as does the "specialness" of the purchase location. Forkless Gourmet has designed these features in by providing a form that is not typical, using packaging that is contemporary yet restrained and selecting ingredients that support the gourmet framework.

Taste: Flavorful menu items and ethnic flavors have been the strongest drivers of sales. A key driver is the focus on Asian, Mexican and other Hispanic flavors via the additions of flavorings like cheeses, spicy seasonings and sauces and gravies.

Healthiness: Frozen foods have focused on reducing the amounts of fat and calories and, in some cases, the ingredients in their offerings. There has not been much effort on providing healthiness via the addition of ingredients.

The experience

Forkless Gourmet Vegetarian Feast bun meals with tofu & edamame, mild Asian style, are available two buns to a package, total weight 10 oz., for $2.69. The overall line comes in 11 Asian and Mexican flavors that include products with chicken, shrimp, beef, pork, black bean and tofu.

While many are available at neighborhood grocery stores, some of the flavors are only available via the natural food channel. Having all natural ingredients and signature sauces in a tender, oven-baked bun, all of which microwaves in 1½ minutes, seems unbelievable. Normally, you can get fast, microwave food or fast health food, but not both.

The paper box package is somewhat subdued relative to graphics available today. The script used is contemporary, however, and pulls the eye in. The picture of the bun food on the package actually looks just like the food after it is cooked. The inner wrap was nothing special and the two buns looked interesting but somewhat plain except for their black seeds. Since this is a sandwich made with special bread, the consumer expects a soft, moist bakery product, not a crisp, fatty-tasting crust.

The bun was tender, neither dry nor too moist. It did take more time than the stated 1½-2 minutes per product to cook, but once heated through, the bread was still nice and tasty. The amount of filling was just enough, with neither too much of any ingredient nor too little.

Our taste panels were pleased that the ingredient pieces were large enough to figure out what they were (tofu, mushrooms, edamame). The sauce was special. The faint taste of the grilled mushrooms was clear and blended well with the fine sauce texture that was lightly ginger and soy.

This is not a taste you find everywhere. It was distinctive but not foreign to those who like to eat spicy foods, who dine at places like PF Chang's or who otherwise think of themselves as being able to taste something unique. Best yet, the tofu worked. It was not sour, tough or bitter. Eating like a vegan was not bad!

This is an on-the-go food. The sauce was not drippy and was held within the bun, easily eaten with one hand on the go. You could eat this and drive. The bun did not flake and would not spill on one’s clothing.

Forkless Gourmet bun meals Vegetarian Feast are 320 calories per sandwich (5 oz.) with 9 grams of fat (no trans fats), 15 grams of protein and 49 grams of carbohydrates with 5 grams of dietary fiber. Relative to some other microwave sandwiches, the calories were similar, protein and carbohydrates higher while fat was lower. This version of Forkless Gourmet had 470 mg of sodium; many of the other microwave sandwiches have about double that amount.

The price is similar to other products in the category. And Forkless Gourmet differentiates itself via form and flavors.

The fullness of flavor was satisfying. The bun alone might not make big eaters feel full, but it does represent a warm snack meal that could be used as the centerpiece of a lunch or a healthy snack alternative for an active young adult.

Does the product deliver?

This brand is about hand-held, authentic, instant, fresh flavors that have signature tastes and are quick and easy to prepare. This is a small meal that can satisfy people looking for more complex tastes and textures in easy-to-use forms.

Busy Gen Y'ers or the flavor-affluent will find this product interesting and worth another purchase. This one delivers on the promise.

How to make the idea bigger

The tender, soft and warm bun is different. It is probably not for everyone, but it accommodates sauces that are full flavor without getting soggy. Having a range of bun textures could allow the variety seeker to have as much excitement from the bread as he gets from the filling.

The key is to maintain the current flavor level and quality. We recall the first version of Budget Gourmet frozen entrees more than 20 years ago. They started a huge category but unfortunately along the way became less gourmet and much more budget. Forkless Gourmet's selection of flavors has been done with an eye to the variety seeker who does know gourmet.

Given the skew toward people who want to have tasteful vegetarian and vegan choices, the all natural ingredients described on the web site could be a feature to explore on the package. Additionally, this product is positioned to have many more functional ingredient opportunities as they present themselves to the target audience. The message Forkless Gourmet can have is that not only are they tasty and unique in flavors but they also provide certain health benefits that make them a great trade-off to other lunch, snack and dinner choices.

Further health benefits that could improve the product might involve how to provide even more fiber and include ingredients in quantities that might meet standards for heart health.

Rating: The product delivers on the promises.

Market Potential: Probably, maybe. Others have tried to do this before. The product is right where trends are headed. The market will find this product; but can they expand trial of the product beyond their target group and maintain the product’s integrity over time?

The tastes of Forkless Gourmet bun meals are not found everywhere. The ingredient pieces are large enough to figure out what they are; in this case, tofu, mushrooms and edamame.

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