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Heinz's Complete Skillet Meals Replicate Restaurant Experience

Dec. 30, 2008
Heinz’s Complete Skillet Meals replicate the restaurant experience for the new wave of eating at home.
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.

Better for you: Frozen meals have followed trends in healthfulness with a stronger focus on bigger pieces of leaner meat and crisper, bigger cuts of vegetables, moving away from emphasis of fat and calorie reduction. Organic ingredients are a driver for many frozen products, since this step can make healthfulness seem clearer for some consumers.

Premium restaurant-style taste: Bertolli was one of the first to deliver chef-inspired restaurant-style meals with unique pasta design, ingredient types and cuts and upscale flavors. The market told us that product could drive the business, with Bertolli moving from no business a few years ago to one that is $150 million and growing (according to Frozen Food Age, October 2008).

The experience
T.G.I. Friday’s Complete Skillet Meals come in five varieties — in addition to the one we tasted, there are Sizzling Steak Fajitas, Sizzling Chicken Fajitas, Creamy Chicken Pasta Carbonara and Cajun-Style Alfredo Chicken & Shrimp. The 24-oz. packages sell for $8.49-8.99 and are “ready in 15 minutes.”

The package tears open to reveal five individual packages: chicken, sesame seeds, veggies, pasta and the sauce (which needed a scissors). The number of packages may concern some consumers about packaging and sustainability. To the chef in some, that was just the assistant chef’s way of preparing all the ingredients, just like on a cooking show.

Once in the frying pan, the aroma of the seasoning with the vegetables says you are cooking something special. The instructions are easy to follow and require just a couple of cooking appliances. While the chicken and vegetables are cooking in the nonstick skillet, the sauce and pasta get defrosted in the microwave.

The ability to customize is evident, as the consumer can add different packages at different times to better reflect the texture and flavors they want. The sesame seeds provide the garnish at the end, and sprinkling them on top provides an element of fun or “cooktude” as well as a slight crunch.

The chicken is big, dense and meaty with different-sized pieces that lead you to feel it is real and very homemade. The veggies are big, crisp, flavorful, aromatic and bright. The snap peas delighted in their crunchiness and green color. The lo mein noodles were just right for the meal, supporting the sweet spicy sauce and had the right texture and the correct thickness to create a great meal.

The product filled the skillet, was impressive to look at (“I made that?”) and transported a few of us to feel like we were on a cooking show and that we were definitely cooking. The heat level of the meal was good for the “firecracker” name -- we have never experienced this nice moderation of heat in a frozen food.

When the package was turned over, some consumers had concerns over the long list of ingredients. But excluding the modified corn starch and some required preservatives, the ingredients are fairly healthy and do not include negative ones like MSG.

We definitely found that the 2½ servings was realistic (you are going to want to have a little more of something, like a small salad). There is enough for two adults or for one adult and two younger children.

At 300 calories, it fits well into the healthy portion size meal category (though definitely not a “hearty” portion) while providing a feeling of fullness. The amount of sugar is a concern, but expected in a sweet sauce product. A few were concerned about the sodium (1,090mg), but felt that a meal from a restaurant would be as much if not more.

Does the product deliver?

The T.G.I. Friday’s brand is about familiar but exciting foods. These are products that should look really appetizing, and ours did. None of our taste-testers had a bad-looking skillet meal. The warning of “enjoy the fireworks” lets you know this may be a little hot for some, but it fits the unique TGIF style. This is familiar and exciting but not over the top. It is better than what you might get at a Chinese buffet and reflects the quality expected from a TGIF product.

The package promised the sizzling flavor combinations from the restaurant with very specific tastes and textures. We got all of them. The package did not tell us we would feel good about our cooking skills – that was a surprise. We did not expect the ego boost.

How to make the idea bigger: This product surprised many of our tasters with how good it was. The thought of feeding the entire family (four or more) meant that they would have to buy two or more packages. At $8.49-8.99 per package, that might make some wait for a price deal.

For people familiar with eating at Friday’s restaurants, using the skillet meals as an alternative to take-home reframes this as a value play. Perhaps having a “menu” box at places like Costco might appeal to larger families who want all the items, but need to do price trade-offs.

We really like the idea of restaurant-inspired creations sitting like menus in our. This approach won’t be for everyone, but the present style and pack fits small households, empty nesters and partial households well and is still cheaper than going out.

To sustain the idea, keep the quality ingredients. Two areas that really weren’t emphasized and are incredibly successful: the vegetables and sauce are so good they could be called out. They could be anchors for other compelling varieties. Kids would eat more vegetables if they taste like these do.

Thinking about the multiple packets, Heinz has demonstrated the ability over the years to do fairly interesting packaging changes and to build the change into the product (think about Fast Fries and the ketchup cap). So maybe Heinz could figure out some other, maybe Earth-friendly films – clearly labeled as such – that would make consumers feel better about all the packaging. They really are key parts of the cooking experience, keeping the flavors separate until cooking.

Rating: This product does deliver on the promise. It sets high expectations during usage and meets them during the meal. The Heinz folks are showing us something about great product design. There are a range of taste experiences available. T.G.I. Friday’s skillet meals dazzle.

Market potential: Great. This is a great build in a relatively new category. Will others be able to follow? These folks took the quality message of an early pioneer and have run with it. Good for the category, great for the consumer.

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