Heinz's Complete Skillet Meals Replicate Restaurant Experience

Heinz’s Complete Skillet Meals replicate the restaurant experience for the new wave of eating at home.

By Hollis Ashman, Jacqueline Beckley and Jennifer Vahalik, Consumer Understanding Editors

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There is a heightened desire for convenient, “home cooked” frozen meals that taste like an adventurous gourmet version of a restaurant experience. Pittsburgh’s H.J. Heinz Co., hoping to grow its T.G.I. Friday’s brand beyond snacks to meals, looked to the marketplace to determine where the gap might be for the consumer.

The convergence seemed to be the growing market for frozen premium dinners for two, making the busy home cook feel like she had created a chef-quality entrée and the strength of the T.G.I. Friday’s brand, which ensures a quality and often unique restaurant experience.

Most of the contenders in the frozen meals category have all the ingredients packaged together in one large bag. But a “made by me” feeling for the consumer can be created by individually packaged components and the use of their own skillet. This can make anyone feel like they have an assistant chef who chopped and portioned all the components. Additionally, this skillet meal can be customized for family members with strong ideas about specific ingredients, thus allowing the family to eat the same meal but with some customization for each member.

Enter T.G.I. Friday’s Complete Skillet Meals. For this review, we look at Firecracker Sesame Chicken, introduced this past summer.

Understanding the marketplace
While many consumers have turned to restaurant take-home meals to feed the family quickly, in the current economic environment consumers want to spend less money while still replicating the delightful tastes of unique restaurant meals. Control over the healthfulness of what they eat and a desire to be able to sit down and eat together as a family are other drivers.

Consumers’ busy lives mean many times they do not know what they will be having or making for dinner until they actually get home. Having a frozen, restaurant-style meal in the freezer makes solving this dilemma easier.

In 2007, the mean number of dinners per week that were cooked and eaten at home was 4.8; 1.1 were eaten at a restaurant, 0.7 came from take-out or prepared food brought home and 0.3 were eaten somewhere else (0.1 were skipped entirely), according to a GfK Roper report.

And while two-thirds of families sit down together for dinner at home, at least half of all households are too tired due to their busy lives to make too much fuss over fixing dinner, according to a 2003 AC Nielsen report.

Dinners and entrees are the largest category of the $28 billion frozen food market, taking up 31 percent of total sales. The packaged frozen meals market size is estimated at $8.6 billion and is projected to be $9.5 billion by 2010, a growth rate of 4.1 percent, according to Packaged Facts. Nestle and ConAgra control 54.5 percent of the market, and Heinz is third with 11.7 percent, according to Food Industry Report, September 2008, making it difficult to break into this growing area.

A few years ago, however, Unilever with its Bertolli Complete Skillet meals for two demonstrated there could be a market for innovative tastes and textures in skillet meals. Now others are following, including Contessa and Bellisio Foods (Michelina’s under the name “Joy of Cooking”).

With this product, Heinz is capitalizing on its frozen food technology to create a quick and yet adventurous, restaurant version of a fairly involved meal. The preparation, flavors, textures and ingredients ensure the familiar T.G.I. Friday’s twist, while the individual packets of components allow the consumer to call it home-made.

How great to have a restaurant-style meal, to have the joy of multiple component cooking and to be able to customize it to what different family members want and will eat.

Our It's Convenient! Crave It! and Healthy You! Insights tell us craveable meal kits are made up of a variety of ingredients. Consumers expect a craveable chicken to have a crunchy coating or a meaty roasted chicken texture. They want additional flavors (spices and herbs) or sauces. They want their vegetables to be crunchy, crisp and light with a just-picked quality.

Cuisine styles that enhance craveablity are Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Southern and Caribbean. Key attributes are aroma, taste and appearance of the chicken and vegetables. Key flavors to increase craveablity, beyond chicken and vegetable flavors, are spicy-sweet and spicy-hot.

T.G.I. Friday’s Complete Skillet meals emphasize the importance of multiple taste components that are layered by the cooking approach: the spicy sweet flavor in the sauce, the texture driven by the level of al dente of the vegetables (for crispness) and pasta (which is customizable), the dense, meaty and succulent chicken. The sesame seeds add to the overall appearance, flavor and uniqueness to create a T.G.I. Friday’s inspired skillet meal to be made at home.

Key trends in frozen foods are multiple component skillet meals, better for you, and premium restaurant style taste. Convenience is expected.

Meal kits: The big growth of frozen meals has been in ready-to-cook meals. The variation of the meal formats reflects the level of customization that the consumer may want and the taste profiles they and their family enjoy and can afford. Most of these meals reflect more ethnic flavor; this being an area of greater complexity and therefore more difficult for the time-starved family to create.

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