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While the boost in popularity of frozen food over recent years can certainly be partly attributed to consumers’ busy lives and the convenience boom, the fine food industry has evolved to offer so much more than a quick and easy fix for time-poor shoppers. Thanks to a unique combination of innovation and an innate pinpoint focus on quality and taste, these days the speciality sector offers a raft of artisanal frozen food products which not only satisfy the current need for speed, but the appetite for delicious produce, too.
Matt Whelan, managing director of Fieldfare, is at the forefront of this new generation of frozen food and calls upon the fine food industry as a whole to step up to the plate. “Frozen is having a bit of a renaissance and it has great momentum at the moment,” he begins. “It is up to us, the brands, suppliers and stockists, to ensure that we continue to deliver a great offering that will keep shoppers interested and keep them coming back to the frozen aisles again and again.”
A host of benefits
Headed up by Ruby Bell, a Leiths-trained chef and her business partner Milly Bagot, ByRuby is just one of a raft of next-generation businesses serving up just what today’s consumers are looking for. “The pandemic has made people realise what goes into making a good meal and the importance of using the best ingredients. When frozen, premium ingredients cooked with care give the consumer flexibility and mean there is no wastage in their kitchen.”
With the spotlight on additives and the desire to eat ‘clean’ more widespread than ever, frozen food offers consumers the opportunity to eat conveniently without the need for chemical intervention. “Freezing immediately after cooking is like pressing pause on freshness and flavour until you are ready to press play again,” she says. “Freezing is nature’s oldest preservation technique and, in my view, artificial additives and preservatives are the least healthy thing we can put into our bodies so avoiding those is a great step forward for the health-conscious.”
This flavour-first focus on helping consumers to eat healthier and more sustainable lives is shared by Pack’d, a frozen fruit and smoothie kit business co-founded by Alex Stewart. The business offers convenient, precisely portioned mixes of fruit and vegetables alongside a bespoke superfood blend which aims to deliver a targeted nutritional benefit. In 2022, says Alex, “consumers now see frozen not as something with a long shelf life, but actually fresh food that retains its freshness – this change of attitude has been pivotal to the resurgence of the frozen category.” The pre-portioned servings presented by ByRuby and Pack’d are progressive in terms of food waste, with Pack’d’s Alex having found that fresh fruit being one of the greatest victims of being binned.
Food waste is also a topic high on the agenda for customers of Field Fare, purveyors of a wide range of frozen food products and branded freezer units. “Whilst the wider food category trends such as a focus on health and provenance are of importance to frozen, the key trend for the category really is around people’s growing awareness of the benefits of frozen foods - not just from a nutritional perspective but also in terms of sustainability and food waste, which is a growing concern for the contemporary consumer.”
Field Fare’s unique offer of loose frozen foods appeals to shoppers looking to reduce food waste, “offering them a choice they might have otherwise had,” says Matt, “as they can pick as much as they want but no more than they need, helping to reduce food waste at home.” This proposition is also a boon to retailers, who are enabled to sell a wide range of products without the concern around waste they may have with fresh.
In fact, according to Richard Harrow, chief executive of the British Frozen Food Federation, “research published in the British Food Journal shows that diets containing frozen food have 47% less food waste compared with fresh foods, with a typical household wasting 10.4% of fresh food and only 5.9% of frozen food.”
A premium proposition
While the pandemic had catastrophic implications for many sectors, the frozen food segment of our industry saw an uplift in some cases, with new shoppers, says Field Fare’s Matt, “driven to try frozen food, motivated by the long shelf life and potential to stock up. Once there, they were delighted with what they found and discovered the breadth of range and increasingly high-quality offering, prompting them to re-evaluate the category.”
Field Fare’s extensive range has proven to be a hero in homes across the UK, with its wide range catering to all manner of meal requirements. “Our prove-at-home pastries, such as our best-selling croissants, are incredibly popular and offer people a freshly baked product in the comfort of their own home.” Meanwhile, “high quality prepared products that help to complete the meal occasion, such as our award-winning Coquilles St Jacques – an ideal starter – and our unique frozen vegetable mixes, offer a convenient as-if-made-from-scratch experience for busy consumers.”
The buzz around fine dining at home experiences has been building for a few years now – just think of the queues for pre-prepared luxury meals pre-Valentine’s Day as a fuss-free alternative to overpriced restaurant set menus – and is an opportunity that premium ready meal producer Noble House Prepared are investing heavily in.
“When we first launched this side to our business, we saw people looking for an opportunity to have easy to cook, restaurant quality meals at the beginning of the pandemic,” says owner and director Conrad Baker, “however, as things ease and restaurants are back in business, the demand has continued. Whatever one’s circumstances, we can all be time-poor and so we see this trend continuing – it’s all about flexibility and convenience without compromising on nutrition, taste or quality of ingredients.”
With bona fide fine food credentials thanks to the impressive CV of its in-house executive chef, Owen Sullivan – who spent many years leading the kitchens of a number of Gordon Ramsay’s Michelin-star restaurants – Noble House Prepared are offering a genuine restaurant-quality experience in the comfort of shoppers’ homes. “He focuses on every aspect of the dish including sourcing the finest ingredients and putting priority on provenance to ensure the quality of each meal,” explains Conrad. “Fine food retailers want a guarantee of quality and this includes the credentials of the chef and kitchen creating each dish.”
Catering for all
Within the impressively varied range of quality frozen food products on the market, there are plenty of options which satisfy the demand for plant-based. Whether your regular customer is vegan or not, they are bound to host a friend of family member following a vegan diet at some point – so offering dairy- and meat-free options in your freezer is a smart move. “It enables customers to have excellent quality produce on hand any time it’s needed, whether for themselves or for guests with specific dietary needs,” explains Thea Brook, founder of frozen plant-based meal business The Brook.
“The freezer has always been a place for both ‘cook from scratch’ ingredients and prepared produce,” she continues, “however, the latter has traditionally been both low price and quality. We see a huge amount of opportunity in raising the bar of this prepared end of the spectrum, whether that’s excellent meat alternatives, cooking sauces or complete meals.”
Key to the success of frozen meals, says Thea, are the visuals around them. “Hidden behind frosted doors or down in chest freezers, it can be harder to draw the customer’s attention to frozen products. It’s very different to the beautiful upright rows of ambient products, for example. To overcome this you need great merchandising, showing the product and telling the story as to why it’s incredible food.”
The Brook has its own range of branded freezers to help retailers do just that, and further grow the reputation of high quality frozen food in the speciality marketplace. “Hopefully we’ll see consumers continuing to embrace frozen for all its benefits more and more, which will allow the premium end of the market to flourish. I, as a consumer, get very excited about that prospect!”