Much of what Grainful is all about has to do with its small-town location in Ithaca, N.Y., a spot in the upstate Finger Lakes region known for its local farms, sustainable and independent lifestyle and adventurous trails and gorges. This gives Grainful its free spirit and the independence of a small, passionate team crafting meals that start with a blend of gluten-free, non-GMO, preservative-free whole oats, quinoa and sorghum. It layers in vegetables and proteins and finishes with bold, chef-crafted sauce variations.
The free-spirited combinations and creative flavors are why Grainful frozen meals are helping to heat up sales in the supermarket frozen section. "Our ingredient statements read just like a recipe," says chef Jeannine Sacco, Grainful's chief food officer and co-founder. "We like to push boundaries when it comes to sourcing unique ingredients not usually found in a typical frozen meal."
Sacco has no R&D team at the company; she is the R&D team. "It's just one person − me," she says. Together with partner and company president Jan Pajerski, Sacco bases most of Grainful's products on whole grains because they're full of fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that help sustain nourishment and energy. Inspiration is largely global cuisine that's nutritious, better for you and real food.
Sensory attributes are crucial. "We want a balance of different textures, colors for visual appeal and, most importantly, flavors," she says. "I love the combination of sweet, savory and a splash of acid from lime or lemon juice. I want to make your tastebuds dance."
When the company first launched (2014) steel-cut oats were the base for the meals. "The grains give the entrées a distinct crunchy texture similar to brown rice."
Clean ingredients are a priority. "We limit added sugars and only use them if we're unable to extract sweetness from a raw product such as tomatoes," she says. "We put a lot of emphasis on ingredients in their raw state. Tomatoes are just tomatoes; spices are sans silicon dioxide; and we use no 'processed' ingredients. All of our sauces are made from scratch."
The frozen items are certified gluten-free. Going a step further, Grainful only uses organic, gluten-free oats certified via a benchmark process, consisting of safety, purity and traceability protocols. It's also in the process of becoming Non-GMO Project-verified.
"Our goal is to bring consumers the best-tasting, affordable grain-based meals in the frozen section," she says. "Consumers are looking for ways to incorporate more whole grains into their diets, and we fulfill that need with delicious, convenient frozen entrées made with a healthful blend of sorghum, quinoa and whole oats."
Oats and grains, front and center
In 2014, its first year in business, Grainful supported four products: frozen entrees in Mushroom & Chicken, Unstuffed Pepper, Vegetarian Chili and Tuscan Bean & Kale. All were made with steel-cut oats and were available at a single grocery chain with 70 stores. The entrees are contract-manufactured in Pennsylvania.
"During our second year, we expanded distribution into two larger grocery chains and a handful of independent stores," she recalls. "Once we saw velocity growth, we began developing meal kits in four more SKUs: Thai Curry, Chana Masala, Ranchero Chicken and Jambalaya. This year, we're hoping to innovate further. We are always working on ways to increase our offerings and innovate the frozen [segment]."
Steel Cut Sides, a line of savory, oat-based, shelf-stable side dish mixes, debuted in 2016 but are no longer available.
Sacco reformulated the recipes last year with higher quality ingredients to improve the dining experience. "We launched a blend of whole grains (whole oats, sorghum and red quinoa), updated our internal tray to a bowl and separated out each of the components of the dish for a layered effect instead of mixing all the components [together] as a one-pot meal."
Minimal but flavor-packed ingredients, such as red bell pepper, celery, tomatoes, tomato powder, salt, basil, smoked paprika, granulated garlic, cayenne and thyme, blend with the hearty grains to add flavor and contrast; the grains and veggies provide 10g of fiber, 11g of protein and 25 percent of the daily recommended value of iron. The grains are "minimally processed" to retain the outer bran, which contains the fiber-rich layer loaded with minerals and B vitamins.
Bolder flavor profiles help set the brand apart from the herd; so do unique vegetables, such as broccolini, Brussels sprouts and ramps (wild onions or leeks).
Grainful regularly tracks consumer wants by approaching trends from many different angles. "Our sales manager communicates with brokers, buyers and retailers to get their take on consumer demands," Sacco notes. "Our marketing manager consistently scours the web, and we directly contact current consumers via social media, email and surveys.
"From a chef's perspective, I'm always interested in what local restaurant chefs put on their menus, and incorporate those ingredients and flavors into my developments. Many restaurants in Ithaca use local, unique ingredients, so that inspires me to bring them to the frozen segment." She also conducts both primary and secondary research to make sure Grainful stays ahead of trends. "The back of our packaging asks consumers to take a survey about their thoughts on our products, so we can continually serve them better. We do quite a bit of online research and talk to other companies in the CPG space to learn from them."
Obtaining unbiased opinions about new products is crucial. So an internal tasting team functions in isolation so that individuals can provide feedback without being influenced by a group, Sacco explains. A larger group chimes in for feedback on whole product line developments and flavor profiles. "This works well because [the feedback is from] a diverse range of people with different palates," she says.
Recently, the company spent 12 weeks reformulating the current recipes using more whole grains, new flavors and fine-tuning the sauces to shine with the grain blend. Each meal is topped with a protein and vegetables. "Consumers instantly see how much chicken is in the entrée, and the vegetables brighten the dish and add a nice crunch. The different textures and bolder sauces also upgraded the meals."
Sacco doesn't have a formal product development procedure. "Sometimes you just have to get in there and start cooking," she explains. "Once I know the flavor profile I'm shooting for, I record everything in the dish to build the recipe. Then I make the dish over and over in small batches until it's worthy enough for the staff to try and provide feedback." Some recipes are great in the kitchen, sometimes don't work in scale-up form.
One variety Sacco says surprised her with its great success is the Tuscan Bean & Kale entree, a hearty base of steel-cut oats and tomato with vegetables and beans. "It’s our top seller. Consumers rave about the flavor. Different textures come from the garbanzo and kidney beans and kale was just starting to become popular at the time."