business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

First it was cauliflower rice, followed by cauliflower pizza crust. The new cult favorite food among Manhattan millennials is Trader Joe’s cauliflower gnocchi.

I know this because I was able to snag the last four bags of the coveted product at a suburban Trader Joe’s for my city-dwelling daughters. Honestly, I had never even heard of cauliflower gnocchi until they lamented it was always sold out, and a quick Google search hailed these gluten-free, lower-calorie dumplings as a “rage” and an “obsession.”

This example confirmed what a perusal of the frozen food cases, social media and industry research have all reported - frozen food is making a comeback with shoppers of all ages, particularly twenty- and thirty-somethings. A recent headline from the millennial-aimed website Well&Good stated, “Fact: The Healthiest Foods Are Now Found in the Freezer Aisle.”

A new industry report found frozen sales were up 2.6 percent to nearly $57 billion in 2018. While entrees led the pack, the three categories showing the largest percentage of dollar growth were soups/sides, led by vegetables, appetizers/snacks and breakfast food.

The core frozen shoppers are millennials, particularly parents juggling families and careers and heavily focused on convenience, according to the new research from American Frozen Food Institute and the Food Marketing Institute.

The challenge facing the industry is expanding that base of high-frequency shoppers, and overcoming the perception that frozen foods are highly-processed, unhealthy fast food epitomized by the TV dinners of yesteryear (or my childhood).

That’s where innovation and more sophisticated healthy options, spices and ethnic cuisines come into play, and I think it’s clear which brands are forward thinking.

When cauliflower rice first burst on to the culinary scene in 2017, I noted that Green Giant and Birds Eye were nimble in getting similar “riced” vegetable products on the market quickly. Since then, both have expanded those offerings and capitalized on the spiralizer and “zoodle” trend with a new line of vegetable pastas. Birdseye even has a vegetable pasta meal kit with chicken and vegetables.

Taking a page from Blue Apron and competitors, single-meal stalwart Stouffer’s recently rolled out “Complete Family Meal Kits” in the freezer section featuring meals for four that can be prepared in 25 minutes.

Breakfast is another evolving category, even after we discount the big boost in sales for Eggo fueled by one character’s obsession with the frozen waffles on the Netflix hit “Stranger Things.” When checking out the breakfast fare at a local Stop & Shop, there were more “healthy” Jimmy Dean options, such as egg white and spinach on a flatbread, than boxes of the traditional sausage, egg and biscuits. Next on the shelf was Evol, a new player in healthy frozen foods that made its way to supermarkets. Kellogg will soon be launching Off the Grid, a new waffle packed with extra protein.

Also, as more consumers are seeking plant-based proteins such as Beyond Meat and “tuna” from Good Catch, the freezer case will be their destination. Even Tyson Foods, known for its beef and frozen chicken products, has announced it will be debuting a vegan protein line soon.

I think there is enormous opportunity for improvement, innovation and growth in frozen foods for savvy brands and retailers. And furthermore, many folks don’t want their frozen shipped from afar or from Amazon, which gives local retailers - big and small - an opportunity.

For the record, I would rate the cauliflower gnocchi right up there with the original potato and flour gnocchi. I also like cauliflower rice and don’t mind cauliflower pizza, but wouldn’t wish frozen mashed cauliflower on anyone.
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