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How Frozen and Refrigerated Foods Can Meet Consumer Demands in 2024

Jan. 24, 2024

Cindy Wu, vice president of marketing for Sukhi’s Gourmet Indian Food, joins us for this episode of the Food For Thought podcast. In today’s episode, she and Andy Hanacek discuss the growth in popularity of Indian cuisine and how Sukhi’s is doing its part to help build growth in those flavors and styles in the U.S.

In addition, Wu offers her insights into how processors of frozen and refrigerated foods are responding in the wake of inflation and food price increases, as well as the trends driving those categories heading into 2024.

Transcript

Andy Hanacek: Cindy, thanks so much for joining me today. Wanted to ask you first and foremost give our listeners a little bit of background on Sukhi’s: the products you produce, what your mission is and what sets Sukhi’s apart from other frozen foods out there? Where does Sukhi’s stand in the marketplace?

Cindy Wu, vice president of marketing, Sukhi’s Gourmet Indian Food: Hi, Andy. Thank you for having me here. I’m so excited to tell you about Sukhi’s Gourmet Indian. We have been around for quite a number of years now, and we started really with delivering amazing, great tasting Indian food to our consumers.

Indian food is so hard to make at home, requiring 30-plus spices and ingredients; it’s something that you can’t just easily make. Having that insight from Sukhi herself when she was making it for her family and then sharing it with her local community through farmers markets, she realized that there’s this opportunity to create convenient, refrigerated and frozen items that consumers could just heat up at home. So with, gosh, over 32 SKUs in appetizers, frozen meals and refrigerated entrees for the family, we have quite a selection for everyone.

Hanacek: How has Sukhi’s been able to capitalize on the popularity of Indian food and what kind of challenges has Sukhi’s had to overcome in terms of bringing that Indian cuisine to the U.S. mainstream consumer?

Wu: With Indian food, I think one of the greatest challenges is just getting people aware and familiar with the flavors. Indian food has been up and coming in the United States, but one of the biggest challenges for us and many of the brands out there is just trying to get people to be comfortable with the spices and the levels of heat or the flavor profile. One of the challenges we’ve seen is that consumers have a negative connotation with what Indian food may be. They’re afraid of the spices; they’re afraid of what it might do to their belly. And what we want to do at Sukhi’s is change that perception and really bring that positive, delicious flavor complexity to our consumers.

What’s different about us versus homemade is that you can have it right at your fingertips. We make the ingredients with the best that we would have available — whether it’s the antibiotic-free chicken, spices that you would find in your pantry — but we’ve just done all the work for you, so it’s not really that different. It’s just conveniently ready in your freezer or in your refrigerator. That’s the difference that we can bring to the table.

Hanacek: So, in this effort to make consumers more familiar with Indian cuisine and get more comfortable with it, where does Sukhi’s and other industry peers stand in terms of products, flavors, styles? Is it catching on at a stable pace? Is it really ramping up? Where does Indian cuisine stand among U.S. consumers?

Wu: It’s a growing interest for sure. We saw the rise of Thai food, Chinese food, Japanese food. Indian is now on the rise, so we’re so excited to see the interest as people are seeking global flavors. I think the pandemic was interesting in the sense that people were not able to travel, and so they looked to food as a way to travel, seeking variety. Either through restaurants or through the supermarkets, now they’re able to taste the different flavors, they’re able to experience new joys of travel just through their food. And they can do so easily by just going to their local market and picking up whatever interests them or what they’re seeing in their Instagram feed or TikTok feed. Recently we saw that Indian food ranked almost No. 1 for instagrammable images of food. So that really shows us that consumers are ready and eager, and seeking Indian food at home.

Hanacek: Bringing my own personal experience into play here, I grew up here in Chicago, and I know you’re out on the West Coast. Chicago is a pretty good melting pot of cuisines. Growing up as a Polish kid on the South side of Chicago, it took a while to be exposed to Mexican food, and I grew to love that. But at the same time, I guess East Asian food then worked its way into my onto my palette, if you will. And now you know I’m starting to, as a home cook of sorts, play around with some of those central Asian flavors. And you know some of them, I will admit are a little bit too much for me, and others are actually pretty tasty — and I’m trying to think, “How do I meld some of these flavors and concepts with even some of my American and Polish food that I grew up eating?” So, are there any specific flavors or dishes that are truly doing really well with consumers compared to others, that a company like Sukhi’s can hang its hat on, if you will, to drive that popularity?

Wu: Oh, for sure. I think one of the most popular flavors, if not the most popular, is our chicken tikka masala. To us that is your entry point into Indian food. I know Indian food can be scary, but we make chicken tikka masala the most approachable, family-friendly curry out there. I’ll give you an example. I have young children, and when I first introduced them to Indian food, I asked them if they would like to try some chicken tikka masala. And to them, they’re like, hmm, what is this? But just one taste of that tomato-ey goodness, and they’re like, “I like it.” And they kept scooping it onto their rice, and they stir it in, and now it’s become part of a weekly meal plan for our family. So we have Indian meal nights, which you know, when you compare that with maybe a Taco Tuesday, is working into the repertoire of American family. What’s really interesting is, this is just the entry point. There are so many different flavors in the Indian cuisine. You just have to slowly ease your way in. No one has to jump right in if you don’t want to. And that’s what’s nice about what Sukhi’s brings. We have so many different flavors: chicken tikka being one of them. We have a coconut curry that everyone loves, and you pair that with our lemon rice and then, right there, you have a meal ready to go.

Hanacek: OK, so let’s, let’s shift gears a little bit here and talk about some of the overall trends that are driving frozen and refrigerated foods from your standpoint. What are you seeing driving consumers to frozen or refrigerated products?

Wu: I think consistently with frozen and refrigerated is that it’s available and convenient. People can stock up on the products very readily in their freezers, and that’s always been the draw of that frozen entree. Whether you want Indian or you want Italian, it’s always there, and what’s different is frozen can be single serve. So, for example, if you go to any supermarket, you’ll see such a wide variety of frozen entree flavors, which really speaks to the individuality at home. That’s a trend I think will continue as shoppers are looking for multicultural global flavors — and having that readily available at their fingertips. And that’s what the frozen items really offer consumers. In parallel, the refrigerated entrees are servicing a larger family size. So instead of just a single, you’ve got multiple people in the family that can enjoy the flavors. So we’re seeing that broadening and diversity of flavors across the categories, which is fantastic, because I think that’s what the consumers are really looking for as we develop into this global economy.

Hanacek: So, inflation has hit everybody really hard, up and down, even outside of food and beverage. We just did our outlook story for 2024, and some of the analysts we talked with for that said, frozen foods really took it on the chin when it comes to inflation and passing prices on to consumers. So, what can frozen and refrigerated brands do to overcome that hurdle, and especially if consumers feel as though they’re paying more than they were for their frozen food products?

Wu: Inflation has definitely hit everyone hard, and we’re feeling it in multiple categories, whether it’s in food and fuel … in various ways, I think we’re all trying to compensate for that. Within frozen food, however, one thing that we can do differently is offer that variety of flavor, that I think is unparalleled. Because you’re able to lock in that freshness of flavor and that freezing process, you’re able to still offer delicious food at your fingertips. That’s something that won’t go away from the frozen category, especially the products that we’re able to offer. I think consumers will come back and continue to seek a variety of flavors that they can then enjoy, whether for themselves or in total for their family. No other category can really do that.

Hanacek: Do you feel as though offering a product that’s as unique as Sukhi’s product line kind of shelters the company a little bit in terms of taking a hit like that? You know, you’re not just offering lasagna, for example, right, where folks can maybe try to find other options, other alternatives? You’re offering unique Indian cuisine. Do you feel that helps a company like Sukhi’s, with the uniqueness of the products, or is it still a pretty significant hurdle to have to overcome?

Wu: The fact that we offer unique flavors, that it’s Indian cuisine, really helps us stand against the inflation for consumers who are really looking for flavor and aren’t able to go out and purchase it in a restaurant, for example, where inflation has really taken that to the next level. They are able to seek a different solution and still enjoy the flavors at home. What we’re seeing in the global marketplace is that people want variety and they want flavors from around the world, and your options are limited, whether it’s a restaurant, or make at home with the complexities — or can you buy some ready-prep meals, such as frozen or refrigerated. So when you look at those options, that’s still the cheapest of the three.

Hanacek: So frozen food has come a long way in 20 to 40 years. In my past job, I did a video on just how far it has come in the sense of, when I was growing up, eating TV dinners and things like that, it was such that the brownie was about the best thing to eat in that entire tray of food in in some cases. But taste and quality, variety have all improved. When you look at it from Sukhi’s perspective, is that sort of improvement driving any increased demand? Is it helping in terms of the fact that, again, the U.S. consumer is being exposed not just to Indian cuisine, but a lot of different cultures, cuisines in frozen food. It’s not just, like I mentioned in the last question, here’s some lasagna, here’s some enchiladas. You can get those almost anywhere. They’re pretty basic. Is that all helping drive demand?

Wu: Definitely in TV dinners, you know, I grew up eating some of those myself, so I’m familiar with having a hot dessert on everything, because that’s just how you had to heat them all up. Consumers are still looking for a variety. When you look at how they’re developing meals for one person, right? They’re single-serve and because of that, people buy multiples, they don’t buy the same flavor multiple times. They’re saying, “Today, I’m going to stock up on a little mac and cheese. I’m going to have a lasagna. I’m going to have a chicken tikka masala, maybe a pad Thai.” So they’re shopping that entire freezer section with a variety that satisfies their entire week, and it’s changed. It’s really changed, because there’s now variety out there and the consumer is familiar with the flavors or they’re willing to try something new. Because of that, people are branching out, and it’s really refreshing to see the diversity that’s available in our markets, which speaks to the consumer and speaks to our cultural evolution, which I love.

Hanacek: Where does health and wellness fit into the equation here with frozen foods and where they have come in terms of the decades’ worth of innovation? Do consumers care as much about health and wellness when it comes to frozen foods, and do these customers think about health and wellness when they’re purchasing a Sukhi’s product?

Wu: I think health and wellness always will stay in the forefront. Especially now, I think in January, it’s very much prominent, top of mind for people to make that change, right? So, when they shop and are looking at products that they wanted to put into their bodies, they’re looking for the best ingredients and high quality. That’s definitely something that stands out. If you look at the entire frozen aisle again, you’ll see a great section just dedicated to healthier foods, lower sodium, high protein. It really does speak to that health and wellness focus. For Sukhi’s in particular, we’ve always prided ourselves on using the best ingredients, and as little processing as possible. True to the source — and that means the spices, the caramelized onions, the high-protein chicken we use, everything is really evaluated and reviewed to make sure that it’s delivering the cleanest ingredient possible. Because that’s the product that we would want to eat for ourselves, and that’s what we want to share with our consumers.

Hanacek: Cindy, I appreciate your time today. Before we go, are there any other kind of general food industry trends that maybe extend beyond frozen foods that you feel are driving consumers today? We talked about quite a few, but are there any that we left out that you think that that Sukhi’s has its eye on as driving what consumers are going to be doing heading into 2024?

Wu: Heading into 2024, we have a melting pot ahead of us. With the increase in immigration with diversity of culture, I foresee a fusion of flavors coming ahead. It’s not just strictly Indian food or strictly Chinese food. I think it’s going to be a collaboration of different flavors coming together, and that’s what the new generation of consumers is really looking for. I’m super excited to see, and taste, what’s ahead.

About the Author

Andy Hanacek | Senior Editor

Andy Hanacek has covered meat, poultry, bakery and snack foods as a B2B editor for nearly 20 years, and has toured hundreds of processing plants and food companies, sharing stories of innovation and technological advancement throughout the food supply chain. In 2018, he won a Folio:Eddie Award for his unique "From the Editor's Desk" video blogs, and he has brought home additional awards from Folio and ASBPE over the years. In addition, Hanacek led the Meat Industry Hall of Fame for several years and was vice president of communications for We R Food Safety, a food safety software and consulting company.

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