29 March 2021, 08:22 AM
  • After a stunning year of growth for frozen food, we look into where the thriving sector will go from here, and whether premium ready meals can stage a comeback
What’s next for the frozen food trend?

The rise of the home chef has been a boon for the fine food sector, but the growing appetite for scratch cooking doesn’t mean that convenience is off the menu. In fact, for key workers, those who have been challenged with juggling work and homeschooling, or those who want to limit their trips to the shops, a newfound desire has emerged for frozen fruit, vegetables and meals.

“During the pandemic, people wanted to reduce the number of times they visited shops, but they still wanted the reassurance that they would have good quality, convenient solutions to hand,” explains Matt Whelan, MD of Fieldfare. “The pandemic kick-started a change in behaviour, which made people visit the freezers. On finding the freezers, shoppers have found so much more than ice-cream and peas.

“Consumers, initially through necessity, started trying products that they may have normally bought fresh, opening their eyes to an assortment of great products from raw ingredients to prepared solutions and lovely treats,” he continues. The resurgence of the freezer shows that time-pressed shoppers are looking for simple meals that don’t compromise on taste: an area where the fine frozen food industry excels.

A new standard

Frozen food wasn’t a side-show success of the pandemic – it was the main event. The latest figures from Kantar and the British Frozen Food Federation (BFFF) revealed that frozen food was the star performer of grocery retail over 2020, outperforming every other food category in terms of value and volume percentage growth.

Over the 12 months to 29th November, frozen food sales grew 13.8% in value and 11.5% in volume. “It’s been quite an amazing period,” says Richard Harrow, CEO of the BFFF. “And in fact, the data shows that frozen has outperformed total grocery on every four week period.”

The convenience of frozen food is still a driving factor behind its success – consumer research by Heron Foods for the BFFF found that convenience ranked second only to value for money for the reason people shop in the freezer aisles. But in 2020, frozen food was also bolstered by the cooking at home trend.

According to Richard, the cooking products segment of frozen food grew above the broader market, rising by around 19% in value. Waitrose’s Food & Drink Report 2021 also lauded the benefits of the freezer. Consumers have started using their freezers to hold a wider range of ingredient staples, its research found, and 55% of shoppers plan to continue to do this in the long term.

Demand for frozen fruits, vegetables and herbs is on the rise, and even basics like pasta can now be found in the freezer. The age-old stereotypes about frozen food are finally fading among young and health-conscious shoppers. “Historically, frozen has held a perception of being cheap and poor quality, and this is a stigma that has been hard to shift,” says Matt. “Brands have been working hard to change this perception giving consumers a better understanding of the quality and nutritional value of frozen. And in recent years, we have seen a positive change in consumer attitudes.”

Richard adds that younger age groups such as Millennials have a less negative view of frozen food, giving retailers a good reason to target younger tastes in their freezer sections. “They look at it for what they see in front of them, not from what their grandparents told them about the frozen food market. And if they try products in the market and they like them, they will continue to buy them,” Richard says.

This means that high-quality options are beating the competition. Indeed, from his conversations with retailers, Richard knows that premium ranges are selling very well, showing that people want quality with their convenience. Frozen fish and seafood, which is particularly geared to the high-end side of the market, has proved popular, with products like frozen lobster, king prawns and even monkfish stealing the spotlight.

“Premium frozen foods offer consumers a small ‘permissible’ indulgence that they can enjoy without breaking the bank,” Matt explains. “In a time when restaurants are closed and old routines are disrupted, it also means that consumers can take a night off from cooking and treat themselves to a restaurant-style meal, accompaniment or sweet treat.”

Fieldfare, which has unveiled a brand new look in order to boost engagement with shoppers, has had success attracting new customers with its award-winning Coquilles St Jacques, bake-at-home pastries and creamy potato gratin, but the brand’s unique scoop-your-own offer brings a fresh take to the frozen sector.

“By offering premium products across an array of categories, Fieldfare and other brands are showing their pride in frozen food and offering people high-quality solutions, which taste delicious and are convenient – ready and waiting for when they need them,” Matt says. “These brands offer something that frozen hasn’t seen much of previously – bringing new customers to the freezer and further improving shopper perceptions.” The collision of convenience and quality, which frozen foods can provide, creates a perfect opportunity for fine food retailers.

Reviving the ready meal

There is one area that has fared as well as the rest of the frozen and chilled food market over the past year: ready meals. Despite their convenience, consumers have been stepping away from prepared frozen, says Richard. In contrast to the frozen sector’s huge growth over 2020, ready meals were up by less than one percent. Chilled ready meals were even worse off, he says. “Typically we always talk about ready meal consumers being cash rich time poor. Well, the one thing most people have had a lot of at the moment has been time,” he says.

Before the pandemic, Brits were spending around £4.7bn on ready-to-eat convenience meals every year, and the sector was boasting continuous growth. The poor performance in 2020 was down to multiple factors, according to Euromonitor, “such as a negative consumer perception of references considered unhealthy because of over-processing, as well as the rise of foodservice delivery options, which represent a good, if more expensive, alternative”.

“During the Covid-19 pandemic, demand for ready meals has been hit by people doing more cooking from scratch,” explains Richard Caines, senior food and drink analyst at Mintel. The new target audience for ready meals are looking for healthier options as well as restaurant-quality alternatives to takeaways.

One company working to reframe the narrative around ready meals is Noble House Prepared. “The overriding priority of the ready meals market is to deliver on convenience, whereas our prepared meals are created with a clear focus on providing food with an unrivalled superior taste, equal to a restaurant meal,” explains Conrad Baker, the group’s MD. The company’s meals, which include mains, starters, side dishes and desserts, are created by a chef with experience leading Gordon Ramsay’s Michelin-starred restaurants.

“The taste of the dish is paramount, but so too is the provenance of the ingredients,” Conrad continues. “The original ready meals were renowned for the inclusion of a whole host of preservatives and additives, whereas today’s consumer is far more likely to interrogate the full list of meal components, shunning any artificial additions and actively seeking out products that can demonstrate a commitment to provenance and best-in-class ingredients.”

Vegan business PEP Kitchen is also looking to cater to the growing taste for high-quality ready meals. PEP launched its healthy, plant-based meals in 2020, inspired by street food. “Health is one of the big reasons that people are looking at eating more plant-based foods today and so it is top on our list of priorities when creating new dishes,” says founder Joe Coulter. “These are ready meals of the future that are both healthy and super tasty.”

The eco-friendly option

Fine food independents are perfectly positioned to provide the frozen options that consumers are looking for, from plant-based meals to classic comfort staples, all made with high-quality ingredients, bursting with flavour and packed with strong health credentials. But today’s shopper is looking beyond flavour and quality, too, as they seek out more environmentally friendly options. “Consumers are far more engaged with environmentally friendly packaging and have an expectation that their food should be presented in an eco-friendly format,” says Conrad.

When it comes to packaging, Richard says the industry is making moves forward with compostable options and more recyclable alternatives that can fulfill the role that plastic currently does. “There’s a big willingness and drive from industry to make the change.” Fieldfare’s scoop-your-own concept shows that the fine food sector in particular is prepared to innovate to reduce packaging, with customers able to bring and fill their own containers.

The proposition also encourages consumers to buy “as much as they want, but not more than they need”, addressing another area where the frozen food sector shines: food waste. “Frozen vegetables do provide a great alternative to buying fresh that might go to waste,” Richard says. “Whereas frozen, you put it in your freezer and you take out what you need.

“Until now, a lot of the narrative has been that if you waste food, it impacts your wallet,” Richard continues. “I think we’re going to see a lot more communication that says food waste impacts the planet. And I think that will play into the strengths of frozen food.” According to the circular economy charity WRAP, UK households throw away 6.6 million tonnes of food waste every year. “By using frozen foods, consumers can reduce household waste and costs, thanks to the significantly increased shelf life and by only using what they need,” adds Matt.

Matt believes there is still work to be done to ensure shoppers “fall in love with frozen”, and the industry can use the current momentum to continue to inspire customers. “At Fieldfare, we believe there are a raft of opportunities to innovate into new categories, giving shoppers delicious, high-quality frozen food whilst meeting their needs for convenience, great value with the reassurance that they are shopping responsibly.

“We expect the frozen arena to continue to grow both with existing shoppers buying more categories and more frequently, and with premium and health offers bringing a new shopper into the category,” he adds. For frozen food, the future looks bright.

more like this
  • How to make the tinned food trend work for you

    19 March 2021
    Convenient, gourmet, eco-friendly – tins are not just for food banks, says Sally-Jayne Wright
  • Which trends will continue post-lockdown?

    22 February 2021
    On the day when we are going to be presented with a route out of lockdown, how many of the changes we have seen during the past 12 months continue throughout 2021? Many of us had hoped we would be well out the other side of the pandemic by now, but despite the vaccinations seemingly proceeding well, I think the best strategy for retailers is to plan for a 2021 similar to the last year. Yes, lockdown will ease as we move into the summer, but customer behaviour will take a long time, if ever, to be back to how it was in 2019.
  • 4 drinks trends retailers need to know now

    25 February 2021
    Speciality Food explores the biggest influences on today’s beverage marketplace, from the at-home drinking boom to the most exciting modern formats