Customer appetite for gourmet ready meals grows

02 October 2023, 08:00 AM
  • Fresh, convenient and full of flavour, premium frozen meals are the ultimate fast food solution, with delis and food halls stocking up to meet growing customer demand
Customer appetite for gourmet ready meals grows

Spending time in the kitchen, conjuring up something delicious, is one of life’s ultimate pleasures. During the Covid lockdowns more people discovered the joy of cooking, with recipes topping Google search in this period, and Youtube reporting a 20% surge in interest for recipe-based videos.

But, say some retailer insiders, the bubble of making everything from scratch has well and truly burst for many. “Definitely the euphoria of cooking has slightly waned since lockdowns,” says David Josephs of Panzer’s Delicatessen. “People are cooking, but once in a while they want their meals made for them…and they’re quite happy to pay for a premium product.”

Lockdown, it seems, as well as being an opportunity to practise those sourdough baking skills, proved a period of reflection, with some consumers telling retailers they value their time more…and don’t necessarily want to be tied to the kitchen sink seven days a week.

This is where quality ready meals can fill the void. According to Mintel’s 2022 report on the sector, 30% of UK consumers surveyed would purchase a pre-prepared dish that usually takes a long time to cook from scratch, and 63% of adults agreed they bought ready meals as a more affordable alternative to takeaways. Mintel also suggests hybrid working could account for uplifts in sales, with home workers seeking something a bit more substantial at lunchtimes.

The report demonstrated a clear interest from shoppers in planet-friendly packaging, plant-based options, and products that are healthy or replicate home cooking.

As Speciality Food found out…lasagne is big business in this arena too!

Challenging perceptions

The phrase ‘ready meal’ might instinctively lead to thoughts of pile-it-high, cheaply-made, ultra-processed products – the kind of food found in abundance within discounting multiples.

But there are lots of ‘new kids on the block’ in this category, pushing the boundaries, educating consumers on the benefits of fresh frozen, and challenging perceptions.

Amongst them is Supper Club. The Lancashire-based brand, launched in 2022 by family-run Althams Fine Foods, has seen sales of its premium frozen prepared meals grow tenfold in just 12 months. On top of that, more than 60% of sales are from repeat customers. And rather than limping through the summer (as if often the case with this category) Supper Club saw continued interest, especially via its campaign targeting UK holidaymakers, who perhaps didn’t have as much cash to splash on eating out this year

Marketing manager Katie Clarke says the business, which has a background in farming and butchery, saw a potential niche for super premium ready meals, responding to rising consumer demand for better products.

“Supper Club really was driven by Covid,” Katie explains. “So many people wanted to have quality food at home, but weren’t able to. Our demand has grown since then. We put so much time into product development, focussing on making sure everything is made with the best ingredients.

“The offering for frozen meals traditionally hasn’t been great. I think there’s a massive amount of education to be done in this area, but also for frozen food in general. It can be very good if you use fantastic, high-quality produce. The thing to get across is that just because something’s ‘convenience’ it doesn’t mean it isn’t premium.”

On the subject of ultra-processed food, Katie adds, “Retailers need to invest in products like ours that are made traditionally and don’t go through lots of processes. You’ll see on the back they contain the right kind of ingredients, with no additives or artificial preservatives.”

Waste, and environment are also key concerns for Supper Club. According to the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) UK households account for 70% of food waste each year, amounting to around 6.6 million tonnes. Preparing ready meals is a way for Althams to control its stock from the butchery in a way that adds value to the business, while also helping customers cut down on waste.

“We’re talking to customers a lot more about food waste,” says Katie. “Particularly our online customers who are a bit older. They don’t want to buy a lot of food that could get wasted. We offer single portions, so they have exactly what they need. And because our meals come in foil packaging, they can be cooked in an air fryer, which, again, is helping customers who have air fryers save money.”

Lasagne is the best-selling option for the brand. “But it’s really British traditional dishes people want. After the lasagne our top seller is cottage pie, and then we do a fantastic lamb hot pot – which we should do, because we’re from Lancashire!

“People are looking for heart-warming dishes. We have 15 in our range and have just launched another 13 after lots of NPD and speaking with customers. We’ve added in more Italian options, so a mushroom risotto, chicken risotto, and black truffle chicken pasta. Then there’s a Thai range, and we expect our beef and red wine stew with dumplings to do well.”

Sampling in stores is absolutely crucial to getting the message across about premium ready meals, she adds. “Since we launched, we’ve focussed on doing as many tastings as possible. They don’t cost the earth, and the feedback from most customers is that they would buy after trying.”

The ultimate convenience

Convenience drives huge sales of ready meals for Andrew Storer of The Black Dog Deli, who says they’ve brought greater diversity to his outlets. “Since Covid I’ve noticed people are spending more time at their local deli,” he says. “They love to pick up bits and pieces, and especially having access to something tasty they don’t have to prepare for themselves, in a portion size that works for them. That’s what we’re here for. Having ready meals and a counter of tasty things is a massive plus. It draws people in, and gives them real options and alternatives to a pub lunch or restaurant dinner. We’re finding we pull customers in to sit for a coffee, and then they’ll take something interesting home for later.”

This chimes with Milly Bagot of ByRuby who says consumers are recognising that good value doesn’t always mean cheap, and gourmet ready meals enjoyed at home are a treat. “We have lots of customers who ‘let Ruby do the cooking’ on a Friday night instead of eating out or ordering a takeaway.”
Milly says ‘classics done well’ are the brand’s best sellers - fish pie, lasagne, and chicken tikka masala.

Fieldfare MD Matt Whelan agrees, saying frozen, ready-made food, offers busy shoppers the ultimate solution on days when they can’t ‘do everything’. 

“Premium frozen, in particular, perfectly addresses the needs of the modern shopper. The combination of innovation and a focus on taste and quality makes them really appealing, and the perfect solution for those needing a night off from cooking, or looking for a delicious dinner treat at home.”

As we get closer to Christmas, reliance on these kinds of products usually increases, with time and budget being key considerations for consumers, who will find the convenience of popping a frozen meal into the oven appealing. “But shoppers do not want to sacrifice quality and taste,” says Matt. “So many look to their local farm or speciality store for new and exciting frozen foods to choose from.” Fieldfare’s own range includes the multiple award-winning Creamy Chicken, White Wine and Asparagus Puff Pastry Purse and, for vegetarians, an Asparagus and Gruyere Crown.

Changing household dynamics are, Matt adds, driving the premium frozen market, with an increase in single and two-person households, and the fragmentation of dietary preferences within households, which can add complexity to a shop. “This is where loose or individually-portioned products respond well to what shoppers are looking for.

“They want a range of options to choose from, in particular when it comes to dietary preferences, sustainable options (including reduced packaging), and flexibility on portion sizes or how much they need to buy.”

Value is a huge consideration, says Matt. Especially at Christmas, when household budgets are stretched. Shoppers being able to choose exactly what they want or need means they can exercise better control over their budget, giving them more flexibility. 

“Christmas is also a time of the year when we tend to over stock or over cater. Frozen foods can really help both shoppers and outlets reduce food waste, thanks to the naturally long shelf life. Consumers can stock up on convenient ready meals with confidence, and only need to prepare what they need, when they need it, which in turn helps save money, and is a more sustainable option.”

Boosting sales and managing stock

Offering a range of house-made ready meals has had numerous benefits for Hollow Trees Farm Shop. As well as enticing back regular customers who rely on them, they’ve proved a fantastic option for visitors to grab and go after spending time in the café, store, or down on the farm trail.

Every dish is made by the onsite catering team, often with meat or vegetables reared on the farm, or otherwise utilising local produce.

The deli area was completely reconfigured six years ago, specifically to allow the shop to grow its ready meal and meal solution options.

Marketing lead, Cat Mason, says, “It gives customers the opportunity to have a mixture of products all in one place. They can buy the ingredients to cook at home, or choose one of our homecooked, hearty meals, knowing they’re made with good ingredients.”

The shop offers different sizes of lasagne, cut to feed one, two or even four people, all weighed and priced to make the shopping experience easier. “We put ourselves in our customers’ shoes,” says Cat. We like to make sure everything is a good price, waste is minimised, and that we’re providing balanced meals they can cook well in a home oven.”

Alongside ready meals, the butchery counter is incredibly inventive and constantly changing, offering solutions such as Wellingtons, and marinated meats tossed in oil with seasoning and vegetables, which can be cooked straight away, or frozen for later. “We do a lot of research on what others are doing, what customers want, and what’s popular,” adds Cat. “People are coming back every week, and often they’ll call ahead to see what we have so they can get something reserved!”

Milly says her business has seen an increase in sales of nearly 60% for the last financial year - a large portion of this in independent retail. Having branded freezers in specialist retail has added incremental sales in stores, in what is being coined a ‘new era of premium frozen’.
“As our brand is more widely recognised, we see huge growth opportunity for our retail partners, as more consumers move away from expensive meals out, pop open the wine, and enjoy restaurant quality dishes at home,” she says.

Andrew Storer at The Black Dog Deli says ready meals have also been critical for his business. “When I took over the deli, a guy called Hugh came in and said there were a lot of elderly people living by themselves in the village who don’t always have time to go shopping. He said maybe I could make some meals for them, and they’d go down well with holidaymakers too.”

The idea went down a storm, and now the deli and its sister shops are laden with meals made at the business’s production kitchen. Again, as across the board, lasagne is a firm hit, followed closely by lamb tagine, and curries, both of which actually improve in flavour after a spell in the freezer. “They really have been flying out of my deli since I started creating them. They are a huge part of what we do, and they definitely draw people in,” says Andrew. 

High visibility at the point of sale, and offering a ‘menu’ for frozen ready meals can help clinch sales, he says. “They are definitely some of the most popular items we sell by a long shot. It’s nice to walk into a deli and see homemade products, made by chefs, with local ingredients.”

Ready meals, he adds, don’t have to be confined to what’s in the freezer. He’s finding customers are becoming more and more interested in salads. The kind piled high with interesting leaves, seeds, roasted vegetables, artisan cheeses, and dressings fashioned from ‘fancy’ oils the average cook might not have in the cupboard at home. Often, he says, customers will pop in to buy a salad to eat alone, or to put alongside a protein, or perhaps some quiche, to complete their meal.

“Flavoured cous cous goes down a storm. And we can’t make enough of our heritage tomato salad, marinated with garlic and basil, on a bed of labneh. Salads are amazing when they’re made right. A lot of people don’t put enough dressing on them, or season them right, so if they can buy something where the hard work is done for them, they will.”

Salad are also a huge deal at Panzer’s Delicatessen, says CEO David Josephs. The team get through enormous amounts of egg and onion salad (a Jewish speciality). Also popular at the counter are the likes of roast beef with chimichurri sauce, sashimi-grade tuna with sesame seeds, Greek salads, roasted cauliflower with tahini, and schnitzels.

“They are all important,” he says of the range, especially soups, which change regularly, and help control waste, with fresh produce rotating into the mix.

Customers of all ages and demographics are visiting the deli to stock up on prepared foods and ready meals. “We’re not at the stage of New York yet though,” David adds. “There, they buy everything ready made. But it is picking up in London, especially with the increasing numbers of overseas residents,” he says, alluding to customers who perhaps have a bit more money to splash, choosing ready made over home cooking when they’re not wining and dining in the city’s finest restaurants.

David has particularly seen growing interest in vegan and gluten-free food in the deli, which follows the pattern predicted by Mintel. This plays into the store’s ongoing new product development. “We try to make everything as healthy as possible, with a minimal amount of ingredients, eliminating flour where we can, to make things better for people’s digestion, without affecting the flavour.”

more like this
close stay up-to-date with our free newsletter | expert intel | tailored industry news | new-to-know trend analysis | sign up | speciality food daily briefing