Ice is in.
Frozen food sales have been soaring as consumers stock up, wait anxiously for their new smart refrigerators and fill freezers with prepared meals. But something else is driving growth in the frozen food sector as well. Companies are debuting a dizzying array of frozen foods, taking an industry once famous for TV dinners and turning it into what may be among the hottest grocery aisles, offering cuisine, convenience and more choices than ever.
Companies are rolling out frozen foods and meals while consumers and restaurants increasingly decide to defrost. Partnerships, increased marketing, licensing deals and new options such as gluten-free are speeding expansion. Convenience and long shelf-life are being bolstered by a growing list of products perking up sales.
Further driving growth, 72 percent of frozen food consumers combine frozen and fresh ingredients, according to the American Frozen Food Institute. “Mixing fresh and frozen in the same meal is a telltale trait of our core frozen food consumers,” AFFI CEO Alison Bodor said. If frozen foods summon images of icy vegetables, there has been an explosion of variety as old brands expand and new ones innovate
Restaurants riding the refrigeration wave
In addition to filling home refrigerators, frozen foods are proliferating at restaurants. Frozen foods bring benefits to many professional kitchens, since they often require little preparation, adding ease and speed. Restaurants facing hiring shortages also may find the lack of preparation particularly appealing. And frozen foods can be stored longer, providing greater flexibility in purchasing.
New products now
Niche products, seasonal products and plant-based products are all appearing in the frozen foods aisle as consumers seek to save time and opt for products with a specific health focus. Modern Kitchen rolled out three flavors of animal-free cream cheese for those who prefer plants. Beyond Meat
Gluten-free frozen foods are proliferating. Bell & Evans debuted gluten-free Traditional Chicken Meatballs. Nestlé launched Life Cuisine, which includes low-carb and meatless in addition to gluten-free recipes. Vanessa Phillips, diagnosed at age 20 with Celiac Disease, developed a line of gluten-free foods for mass consumption after creating a gluten-free restaurant menu. She founded Feel Good Foods a decade ago with products now sold at Whole Foods
Images of Martha Stewart in the kitchen helped build her reputation as a modern-day Suzie Homemaker. Now the homemaking maven is venturing into the (possibly once-verboten territory of) frozen food aisles. Martha Stewart Frozen Foods launched last December in the Northeast and the Midwest with 24 products. It has grown so quickly that the brand now says it’s one of the fastest growing launches in history. The brand reportedly plans to expand to 40 products and 10,000 stores across the nation by November. Nearly 20 retailers are jumping on board the Martha Stewart frozen food bandwagon, including Walmart, Kroger
More slices of the pie
While Martha Stewart brings marketing muscle, certain types of frozen food have their own appeal with or without a celebrity name. Pizza has been growing in the freezer aisle almost as fast as Martha’s new brand. Delivery is still big; but so is defrosting. Frozen pizza sales in the United States have been rising steadily, up from $4.98 billion in 2019 to $5.47 billion in 2020 and a projected $6.06 billion in 2021, according to Statista. That may be due in part to new products in this long-established frozen food category.
Pizza with a difference
Cauliflower crust is a new driver in the market, and not only for those seeking gluten-free options. Oggi debuted California Pizza with cauliflower crust, while Beyond Meat launched plant-based sausage covered with red onion and kale. Chick pea crust from Banza is another new entry. Harvest pizza bowls from Nutrisystem launched this year, and Nestle’s DiGiorno plans to launch rising crust mac and cheese pizza in 2022.
[cs4] Pizza is leading to a whole new array of products beyond the walls of the neighborhood pizzeria. The trend is nipping at the heels of Domino’s deliveries.
In some cases, marketing is the main ingredient in new pizzas, just as with Martha Stewart. Barstool Sports Founder and President Dave Portnoy’s daily video pizza review series, “One Bite,” attracts millions of views, according to Barstool. Portnoy and Barstool teamed with frozen meal brand Happi Foodi on One Bite Pizza, hoping influencers will drive sales. The product debuted September 28 at over 3,500 Walmart stores and online. Happi Foodi is launching One Bite Pizzas in 5 Cheese, Pepperoni, 3 Meat and Supreme flavors. We’ll see whether Portnoy is an influencer when it comes to grocery shopping and dietary choices.
Diet in the aisle
Dieters, meanwhile, also can find a wide range of options in the frozen food section. Nestle’s Lean Cuisine, one of the frozen aisle’s more mature brands, has added new products as it seeks to grow sales and retain market share. In addition to a Chicken Teriyaki bowl, you can taste Korean-Style Rice and Vegetables and many more options. Cedarlane Foods rolled out keto-friendly frozen meals. And Nutrisystem in early 2021 released 25 new products, including flatbreads and dinners.
Big, traditional frozen food brands also are getting creative, rather than remaining conventional. Birds Eye debuted Buffalo style cauliflower wings with breading, which could appeal to consumers seeking a plant-based diet. Meanwhile, Green Giant debuted cauliflower and spinach gnocchi, made with 40 percent vegetables. These include wheat flour, so they aren’t gluten-free, but still can check the plant-based box. And Green Giant Grilled Veggies come cooked, pre-cut and packed.
Consumer frozen food sales may thaw a bit as the pandemic peak recedes and people resume eating at restaurants, but new frozen foods are filling up many fridges. As winter approaches, expect the “Big Freeze” to continue at home and in restaurants. And soon, you will be able to have your smart refrigerator order for you.