Psst… Have you noticed? Have you let anyone know?
Taste & quality of prepared foods taking off... finally!
By Bob Sewall
Executive Vice President, Sales & Marketing
Blount Fine Foods
There is a quiet evolution taking place in the retail food industry that some have optimistically touted as The Revolution. It has been going on for years, but only inching forward for most of its existence. We may have reached the tipping point.
We probably all inherently know what “it” is, and it does get talked about in the trade press from time to time. It’s a promise that just didn’t seem would ever come true. But it finally seems to be happening.
“It” of course, is the promise that prepared foods sold in grocery stores will someday be as good as you can find in restaurants. And the promise is as old as the first TV dinner, which I swear is still buried in the back of my in-laws’ freezer.
Yes, the bar on prepared foods sold at grocery stores is being raised like never before. Customer segments, especially millennials and empty nesters, are delighted. And smarter retailers are working hard to fortify their leadership in the eyes of shoppers.
“As good as you can find in restaurants” is a matter of taste. It’s also a matter of quality, wholesomeness, simplicity and convenience – all of which are subjective measures. And good marketing can positively influence consumers’ views on subjective measures. Oh, would Don Draper be pleased to read this!
This raising of the bar is happening in multiple locations around the perimeter of the store: in the refrigerated case section, in the frozen section (to an extent), and especially in the hot-to-go section of the deli, where some retailers have an offering on par with restaurants and caterers.
Now, I could very easily name names, but if I omit a deserving retailer, that brand could unfairly be cast into the “laggard” column, which is just not fair. So we’ll speak in more general terms about what makes a great prepared foods offering.
As mentioned, the dawn of the prepared foods era probably dates back to the introduction of the TV dinner, which C.A. Swanson & Sons developed in 1953, or even a few years earlier. But since those very humble beginnings, “as good as you can find in restaurants” has remained elusive for processors and retailers.
Restaurants have never been threatened by grocery stores.
Progress started in the deli
Hot-to-go operations in deli departments are where I have seen the most progress and innovation as I travel the country talking to retailers. When salad bars started to be complemented with hot soups, momentum started to pick up. It was only natural that deli and bakery departments could combine to offer a fresh sandwich to pair with a soup or salad. Retailers had found a perfect recipe for a delicious, convenient and affordable lunch.
But what about dinner? Fried chicken has done well, and makes a nice treat, but it was the rotisserie that first gave the deli the seeds of the dinner cred’ it is using to fuel its rise. Rotisserie chicken, turkey and even ribs are welcome tools for families that are over-scheduled and time-starved. But they haven’t been the complete answer. So along came pizza ovens, sushi bars and even in a few markets, carving and stir-fry stations.
What’s wholesome about a five-inch ingredient list?
While deli departments have been advancing the prepared foods cause, embracing not only food service concepts, but also the supply chain, refrigerated, pre-packaged prepared foods have lagged.
Taste has been a big challenge, but the texture of the food is something processors have really struggled with. Until the last year or two, getting taste and texture right required some alchemy – or more honestly, chemistry. This led to ingredient labels that scare even the most clueless of consumers.
No, preservatives, stabilizers, thickeners and other additives could not be the answer. The chefs and food scientists would have to take their problem solving in a different direction.
You can’t fake wholesome… which is why it sells so well.
My company, Blount Fine Foods, was certainly not the first to get to where we are today. There are several other excellent brands arriving with us. But the core belief behind our success over the last 20 years, first, that good soup should be hand made of premium ingredients in small batches, and second that we should always strive to make a better product, led us to look at organics, a space where chemistry is never the answer. This made us focus on ingredient sourcing and product handling, and the result has advanced not only our products, but also the very culture of our company.
What we learned, and what so many other brands must come to realize, is that eating well is about making foods with wholesome ingredients, keeping things simple, and handling the food you make with the kind of care a chef would in a better restaurant.
We do what any good chef does: we use ingredients as soon as they come in, we prepare our products carefully, to high standards, and then we move them out to be eaten, which in our case means via state-of-the-art, highly efficient packaging and logistics. Through innovation in product handling and packaging, we are able to market organic soups and side dishes that have a delicious taste and texture profile, and which come with up to a 70-day shelf life.
Clean, desirable ingredient labels for a delicious meal. This is quickly becoming the new prepared foods reality. If you haven’t noticed, take another, closer look. Then be sure to tell you customers, because it’s exactly what they’ve been looking for.