Finding Innovation in the Frozen Foods Category

June 2, 2015
Co-branding, innovation will return the frozen foods category to sales health.

In 2014, the White Castle Original Slider was named Time magazine’s “most influential burger” in a poll of “hamburger historians.” The Time article noted that the success of the Slider “paved the way for the great American burger obsession.”

In its restaurants, White Castle currently is promoting an ultimate Jalapeno Slider and an ultimate Sriracha Chicken Slider. Depending on how those products sell at the drive-thru, it may be just a matter of time before they are stocked in the grocery freezer for at-home crave occasions.

White Castle makes its own frozen foods at a manufacturing facility in Vandalia, Ohio — a facility that was completed just last year. Perhaps more than other frozen food manufacturer, it is challenged to develop a steady flow of new products to keep pace with its restaurant innovation. The company also must ensure that those sliders taste nearly identical to those sold from the little white and blue castles.

But whether it's a national burger chain or a tiny entrepreneurial company making healthier foods for children, frozen food makers have a unique set of R&D and production challenges.

The frozen food category is expected to grow a slow 11 percent from 2013-18, reaching $5.1 billion at current prices, according to Chicago-based IRI. Future growth will rely on new product development focused on items with minimal fat, calories and sodium, more real ingredients and in convenient formats, IRI says.

The industry wants to make sure that frozen foods do not get overlooked or lost in the push for natural foods. To that end, the American Frozen Food Institute last year launched a national effort to encourage consumers to take a fresh look at frozen foods through the “Frozen. How Fresh Stays Fresh” category education and promotion initiative. The hope is that consumers will take a new look at the offerings in the frozen case for there convenience, and for their wholesome nutrition.

Frozen landscape

For a food company to start in the frozen category is not unheard of, but nonetheless, it can be a daunting proposition. Jill Litwin did just that when she launched Peas of Mind, a San Francisco company that makes foods that children (not babies) are familiar with, but makes them from vegetable-based ingredients that offer the nutrition of full servings of vegetables.

“We make frozen foods specifically geared to get kids to eat their vegetables,” says Litwin, who launched the company in 2007. “We do that by reinventing the classics in a healthier way by making them with vegetables. I never hear moms say they want their kids to have more bread or carbs; it's always more veggies, so we chose to focus on that.”

Peas of Mind was founded to slip full servings of vegetables into a variety of children's foods. Its newest product is a Smoothie Kit.

The Peas of Mind product portfolio includes Peas of Pie pizzas made vegetables incorporated in the crust; Veggie Wedgies, "French fries" made of broccoli, carrots and cauliflower; and the newest line, Smoothie Kits, in milk shake flavors that includes a full serving of vegetables.

Litwin, an entrepreneur who launched Peas of Mind without a food industry background, says the company relies on an in-house R&D team plus collaboration from ingredient and processing equipment suppliers to tackle its frozen food challenges. And she says they are formidable.

“The freezer is like New York,” she says. “If you can make it there you can make it anywhere. It's a challenge to win shelf space because it is at a premium. You have to be concerned with temperature control -- throughout transit and in the store -- and any fluctuations can compromise the product.”

Litwin said she might consider making products outside of frozen, but for now will stay focused on the coldest spot in the store.

Under its Tombstone Pizza brand, Nestle USA, Solon, Ohio introduced two limited edition pizza flavors last month that go well beyond standard and traditional. Diablo “turns up the heat” with spicy chorizo and, you guessed it, sriracha sauce. The Bratwurst flavor combines bratwurst sausage and mustard for a ballpark-themed pizza.

Mistica Foods launched its company last year with a line of chicken wings co-branded with Jim Beam Bourbon.

Nestle says the special pizzas “are inspiring families to be even bolder with their dinner choices.” Nestle might also be encouraging its R&D team to think outside the box. That's important, and not always easy, no what category a processor is working in, but it can be especially tricky in the frozen food category.

Bar food comes home

Buffalo-style chicken wings might be the ultimate bar food, and frozen foods might be the category where co-branding is most prevalent. Quick-service restaurants can provide brand appeal for foods heated at home, and freezing can ensure that the details aren't lost in the at-home prep. No surprise then that co-branded freezer offerings are so commonplace.

Late last year, a brand-new frozen food maker debuted with a Buffalo wings product co-branded with the Jim Beam Whiskey brand. Mistica Foods, LLC, Addison, Ill., a newly formed, woman-owned, beef, poultry, pork and lamb processing company, has made a deal with the world’s No. 1 bourbon to develop and offer Jim Beam ready-to-cook flavored meat products to customers nationally.

In December 2014, Mistica Foods introduced a 32-oz. package of ready-to-cook Jim Beam Honey Bourbon-Glazed Chicken Wings. The chicken wings are now available at more than 1,000 Wal-Mart stores across the country.

“Jim Beam is an iconic brand that is well-positioned to leverage its reputation as a bourbon leader and flavor innovator in the retail market, and generate strong sales with innovative ready-to-cook meat offerings,” says Monika Rose Walas, president.

Speaking of bar food, H.J. Heinz Co. has had considerable success with appetizers cobranded with the T.G.I. Fridays chain. But most frozen co-branding involves more general restaurant chain. ConAgra has a particularly large stable, with such brands as Claim Jumper, Marie Callender's and P.F. Chang's. Like White Castle, Bob Evans Farms Inc. decided to manufacture its own restaurant favorites.

Mistica's wings, complete with the smoky flavor of Jim Beam Bourbon are intended as an appetizer. The uncooked, frozen marinated wings in honey bourbon sauce are available in both breaded and non-breaded packages.

“We are very excited about the opportunity to partner with Jim Beam to offer an authentic Jim Beam Bourbon product with a distinctive taste and amazing flavor,” Walas says. “It’s an unbelievably delicious product that brings a restaurant-quality eating experience to the consumer in the comfort of their home,” she added.

The process of developing a great frozen food is crucial, in part because the cost of production and distribution are higher than other categories, and there is inherent risk of damage in storage, transit and retailing.

“We have a well-defined R&D process here,” says Peas of Mind founder Litwin. “Everything we do we create in-house. After we come up with some great ideas that we have tested in our kitchen, we then bring it to a select group and talk about the ideas a bit further.”

Once the concept is narrowed down and flavors are selected, the team will work to refine the concept, with a particular focus on getting each prototype to a key threshold of nutrient impact while making it taste great. 

“This can take weeks or months in order for us to make to something that we feel is great,” Litwin says.

With the new smoothies, Peas of Mind worked with a supplier to create a proprietary Greek yogurt chip that would add texture, flavor and a higher level of protein, Litwin said. The smoothie kits are intended to have the nutrition of a smoothie (appealing to parents), while tasting like a milkshake, so the kids will enjoy it.

Each kit includes a full serving of vegetables and fruit, and 10 grams of protein when made with milk. The ingredient deck for the Chocolate Milkshake Smoothie is: "banana, chocolate yogurt (cultured pasteurized skim milk, water, cocoa powder, sugar, vanilla extract, corn starch, lemon juice concentrate, stevia extract), sweet potato, carrot. Contains milk."

While sales in the frozen foods category have been slowing of late, with the current level of innovation coming from food makers large and small, it can only heat up.

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