Frozen Ready Meal Makers in Britain Cater to More Demanding Customer Base

Ready MealsFrozen prepared meals have long been popular with time strapped cooking novices, but what’s on the menu today in the United Kingdom is far removed from the ding dinners of previous decades. Indeed, demand for convenient, quality and healthy dishes has elevated the ready meals market to a whole new level.

Heidi ThompsonHeidi Thompson, managing director of Thyme Foods.“Consumers have been forced to look at options for convenience and health,” explained Heidi Thompson, managing director of UK Midlands-based Thyme Foods, which produces and delivers premium frozen ready meals directly to customers’ doors. “Savvy shoppers have had to look harder for convenient food.”

In the last decade ready meals have evolved beyond food that can simply be popped in the microwave to be nuked within a couple of minutes with average to poor results. The new generation of frozen meals has a greater focus on quality ingredients, nutrition, provenance and sustainability.

Sustainability is of increased importance today, and ready meals suppliers are investing in new ways to produce and package their products in a more environment-friendly way. Thyme Foods, for example, is striving to make its offerings more sustainable.

“As we deliver direct to the consumer we are very aware of the packaging we use and are always looking for ways to improve our carbon footprint,” said Thompson. “Our products are sent out in cardboard boxes with ice packs and a return label so we can reuse them where possible and recycle them if re-use isn’t appropriate.

“We just moved away from 60% of our plastic trays and replaced them with a paper-based product. With our smoothies we promote re-usable straws and recycling the plastic cups.”

Consumer Perception

The reputation of frozen ready meals has improved dramatically over the last 10 years, with many misconceptions being challenged by research highlighting the nutritional value of frozen food as well as its cost, quality and sustainability.

“The best way to cook is from fresh and scratch, which isn’t viable in this day and age, so frozen meals are providing an alternatives,” said Thompson. “We blast freeze our products at their peak, which maintains quality, flavor, texture and prevents nutritional deterioration.”

With nutritional benefits now a keen focus for consumers, the industry has taken note and is concentrating on communicating the nutritional benefits of frozen meals and freezing as a natural form of preservation.

Phil rimmer apetito head development chefPhil Rimmer, head development chef at Apetito UK.“With freezing, no additives are required to keep food as fresh as the day it was harvested,” pointed out Phil Rimmer, head development chef at Towbridge, Wiltshire-based Apetito UK, the British unit of Rheine, Germany-headquartered Apetito AG. “However, frozen foods are not only nutritious. They have both monetary and environmental benefits through the reduction of waste, as there is no need to use more than what is needed.”

Changing Tastes

Consumers’ tastes are changing all the time, especially as global cuisines are readily available and increasingly influencing food choices. Health and lifestyle trends have also had a huge impact on consumer tastes, leading to demand for more plant-based options.

“With a push towards cleaner labels and more ethical eating in recent years, we have seen a rise in demand for vegetarian and vegan options,” said Rimmer. “Whilst consumer tastes have become more open and adventurous, there is still a high demand for traditional meals.”

Thyme Foods Smoothie VarietiesThyme Foods promotes what are referred to as entry products, which are well known dishes such as cottage pie, to make consumers become more familiar with the brand and ultimately more adventurous with every order. Current offerings include fish pie, curry, burgers, steaks, chilli and smoothies.

“Smoothies are one of our most popular lines,” said Thompson. “Vegan products are also in higher demand, so we launched vegan dishes to support the range rather than as alternative to meat or fish, as a lot of customers buy across the range with meat and vegan options.”

According to Rimmer, the fact that people are living longer on average has impacted on the types of ready meals that are now in demand. This means increased demand for meals catering to special dietary requirements, including intolerances and allergies.

“We employ both a dietician and a nutritionist, who work closely with our chefs, to ensure all our meals are nutritious and meet the specific dietary needs of the consumer,” he said. “Our onsite Campden-accredited lab acts on a positive release system, allowing us to be confident in our production process. We have specialist equipment in our factories in the UK and Germany that allows us to produce an award-winning texture modified range of products for people living with dysphagia (difficulty to swallow food).”

Apetito’s product range includes energy-dense offerings for those needing more calories due to poor diet or unintentional weight loss, and healthier options for consumers who require a balanced diet. The company also works with suppliers to provide ethically appropriate foods that are kosher- and halal-certified.

apetito minced hot pot“Apetito is built on the values of creating healthy, nutritious, good food,” said Helen Willis, a dietician at the company. “We signed up for the Public Health Responsibility Deal around salt reduction, and although this is now defunct, we still adhere to it. We have also gone through an internal process called ‘Clean and Green,’ which has focused on reducing salt, sugar and saturated fat in products.”

Over the last few years there has been a sharp focus on flexible catering within hospitals, with many healthcare facilities introducing 24-hour feeding programs. As a result they have looked to caterers to design meals to give them the needed flexibility.

“The ease of cooking frozen prepared meals that provide consistent high quality, nutritionally balanced servings delivered a solution to this need,” said Rimmer.

“When designing meals for hospitals and care homes, the dining experience should never be overlooked, as it is the most important element is ensuring people want to eat them.”

The consumer demographic hungry for ready meals has changed dramatically over in the last decade, expanding well beyond initial prime targets of single people, students and the elderly. The shift in the customer base for these products has prompted manufacturers to reassess their ranges, with health, nutrition, provenance and value at the forefront of new product development. – Reported by Sarah Welsh

Authentic Recipes with Modern Flair Driving Indian Cuisine in UK Market

Although curry has been the unofficial national dish of the United Kingdom for some decades, according to Yawar Khan, chairman of the Asian Catering Federation (ACF) based in London, half of all Indian restaurants in Britain are expected to close over the next 10 years. However, the predicted closure of around 17,000 outlets isn’t a reflection of a change of heart regarding Indian food, but the failure of restaurateurs to respond to evolving consumer demands.

Spice of Life Onion Bhaji from Central Foods"For years we have been telling restaurants they need to up their game with shorter menus, offering lighter healthier options with more fish and vegetable dishes, with genuinely authentic regional food,” Khan told The Independent, a London-based newspaper with national circulation. “Many rarely see a customer at lunch time, while pubs and chains like Nandos are serving thousands of spicy dishes throughout the day.”

This apathy has left a huge opportunity for foodservice outlets to offer a range of Indian dishes which meet modern consumer demands, allowing them to cash in on the popular cuisine. Subsequently this has resulted in restaurants, retailers, wholesalers and suppliers becoming more proactive with new product development (NPD).

Brakes Indian platter contains vegetable pakora 15 onion bhaji vegetable samosa and aloo tikki“Whilst Indian food remains universally popular, more and more foodservice outlets are capitalizing on the boom in UK street food which demands innovative flavors, textures, colors and cooking techniques,” explained Megan Modha, category manager, grocery, at Brakes based in Ashford, Kent. “The majority of NPD we have seen coming through takes a traditional recipe as its base and is then tweaked to incorporate a modern twist.”


Today’s consumers are interested in provenance and authenticity, and the foodservice industry has taken note with suppliers offering an array of frozen Indian dishes to help caterers satiate the masses.

Street-style food’s popularity shows no sign of abating, but an evolution is afoot with predictions of more sophisticated, regional dishes in high demand. Simply serving bog standard Indian cuisine no will no longer suffice. Consumers want to know their dishes are inspired by the streets of Mumbai or the shores of Goa.

Indian Veg Snack Selection available from Central Foods“Indian food is very labor intensive to produce from scratch,” said Gordon Lauder, managing director of Northamptonshire, England-based frozen food distributor Central Foods. “The mix of ingredients is more complicated than those used in Western recipes. There is a minimum of seven ingredients and up to around 200 in total (from a worldwide ingredients list of around 381), more than is used in any other cuisine. There is a lot of marinating of ingredients to achieve just the right taste and aroma and the right mix of spices in the right quantity is key to achieving the perfect flavor.”

It can be notoriously difficult for caterers to replicate these authentic flavors and dedicate the time to creating them from scratch, which is why many turn to quality, pre-prepared frozen Indian products to meet consumer demand with ease.

Laila RemtullaOne company which prides itself on offering authentic, hand crafted Indian cuisine is Blackpool-based Laila’s Fine Foods. Its products are still produced in the way founder and director Laila Remtulla made them in her kitchen over 30 years ago.

“All our products are cooked in a way unlike any other manufacturer,” she explained. “We do not manufacture using large scale production methods but a smaller scale, hands-on approach, similar to how you would cook at home. The fact that all dishes are stirred and packed by hand enables us to maintain a true ‘homemade’ taste in all our products.”


Sharing plates have been popular with consumers for some time and Indian food is ideal for this style of sociable eating. It also enables caterers to allow consumers to try a variety of new bite-sized morsels.

“Indian food lends itself very well to the rising demand for street food-style menu items, and this has paved the way for imaginative new uses for some of the traditional ingredients of Indian food, such as naans,” said Lauder. “Where once naans were just side-of-the-plate accompaniments, now they are used in all sorts of ways and at meal occasions throughout the day – from breakfast (served folded and filled with bacon, egg and chili jam) to topped with blue Stilton and truffle oil for lunch and even marshmallows, chocolate and cream for dessert.”

With increasing numbers of people being diagnosed with food allergies and intolerances, as well as more of a focus on health, the popularity of free from dishes is rising.

“The free from side has really increased, so there is more demand from caterers for vegan, vegetarian and gluten free meals to make up their menu,” said Remtulla. “As consumers are becoming more aware of what they put in their body and using food as a dietary supplement, and there is now a market for higher protein meals. We now have 30 grams of protein included in the chicken stag balti to accommodate this need.”

She continued: “We understand the need to follow food trends and continuously evolve our product range to meet the demands of the market. Luckily we have a very talented and experienced NPD team and are able to work closely with both retail and foodservice partners to spot trends and develop quality products.”

With today’s consumers having more discerning pallets it’s essential to offer premium quality dishes. As with other frozen food items there has been a shift towards premium Indian options made with high quality ingredients and increased percentages of proteins.

Lailas Chicken korma and chicken jalfrezi“We have noticed that the market growth in frozen meals is being driven by premium products,” said Remtulla. “Consumers also understand that it is worth paying the extra money for a deluxe product that represents good value for money, as there is often a marked increase in the quality of both the product and the ingredients.”

Despite the charm of a classic curry still tempting many, consumer tastes have evolved driving innovation towards truly authentic, regional dishes. The kormas of the world will still have their place, but any business wanting to take a share of this lucrative cuisine needs to move with the times to reap the rewards. – Reported by Sarah Welsh

Premium Products Generating Gains For Private Label Business in Britain

The own label sector has seen a significant expansion over the last few years, with premium products driving the category forward. According to the British Frozen Food Federation (BFFF), the UK private label retail market was worth £3.3 billion for the year ending in April of 2018, while the foodservice segment was valued at £2.3 billion.

Chicken Kiev from Central FoodsChicken Kiev is distributed under the Golden Valley Foods private label.“The own brand retail market was flat just a year ago, but it has been a really good year and sales have grown 6.2% year-on-year,” said John Hyman, chief executive at the Long Bennington, Lincolnshire, England-based trade association. “Whilst there is an element of inflation, the good news is consumers are spending more on frozen food. Private labels are growing ahead of the market by 8.8%, which is a 54.9% share of the market.”

It would seem the success of private labels is just as prevalent in most of continental Europe, where the volume market share of frozen foods is increasing year-on-year. According to IPLC Europe, Switzerland has the highest rate at 74.9%, followed by Spain at 68.6% (up 9.6% compared to 2013), France at 48.4%, and 26.1% for the Netherlands (up 0.6%).

Value-added private labels (VAPLs) – which include premium, organic, free from, eco-friendly and regional private labels – play an integral role in the retail sector in Europe. Aside from boosting profit margins, they are vital in order to stand out from the competition. VAPLs also allow retailers to meet consumer needs and changing trends, enabling them to build loyalty with them.

Koen de JongKoen de Jong“We seek to insert value-added private label to drive growth and profitability,” said Koen de Jong, managing partner of Vaught, Netherlands-based IPLC Europe consulting firm.

Early in May IPLC issued its 2018 research report entitled the “Opportunities in the Value-added Private Label Market.” During the first four months of this year, 25 retailers in nine countries were visited to investigate their full private label architecture. The analysis provides a deep insight into their strategies.

Below is an excerpt from the report, which is available for a fee at

“Over the past decade discount retailers have put enormous pressure on the prices of standard private label (SPL) across Europe. As a result mainstream retailers were forced to respond by lowering their prices in order to reduce the value gap. In most cases this resulted in a serious deterioration of margin. To compensate, they reviewed their strategies in order to mitigate the pain, and VAPLs turned out to be a powerful instrument in their toolbox.”

Upping the Ante

Consumer perception of frozen food has improved dramatically compared to just five years ago, as innovations in freezing techniques have improved the quality and variety of products on offer. Consumers are now far more aware of the nutritional benefits of frozen foods.

At one time private labels were perceived as the cheap and cheerful option of seemingly inferior quality, but a tiered approach introduced in both retail and foodservice sectors has allowed a more positive view of frozen private label products to blossom.

Today’s consumers want to see restaurant quality in own brand products that they can experience at home with ease, and the industry is clearly taking note as the BFFF reported seeing more entries than ever for its annual awards competition, which salutes product innovation.

“Certainly, I think the perception of own brand quality has improved,” said Gordon Lauder, managing director of Northamptonshire, England-based Central Foods. “When the banking crisis hit the UK in 2008 and everyone had to tighten their belts in the ensuing years of austerity, caterers were forced to look for cheaper alternatives and found own brands were more than capable of providing the products they required at the right quality and right price. As a result, they re-evaluated own brands, and those that continue to satisfy their requirements have endured and even flourished, with some now even rivaling the larger branded players in the market.”

According to forecasts by IGD, premium private labels (PPL) in the UK retail sector will become one of the most important trends with retailers increasingly investing in PPL.

With the frozen food sector in a good place private labels are doing well and there are now far more premium products compared with a decade ago. Indeed, IGD reports that 75% of UK shoppers believe the quality of them has improved over the last two years. However, there are not premium options across the board so there is room to expand premium own brand labels throughout every frozen category.

John Hyman ThumbnailJohn Hyman“What we are seeing across all categories is polarization in the areas consumers care about,” explained Hyman. “With the increased choice and prevalence of these products there is more credibility. We would encourage more premium innovation in the future from an indulgence perspective and health perspective.”

Market Awareness

As a key frozen food distributor, Central Foods markets own brands such as its proprietary Golden Valley Foods range of value poultry products including Chicken Kiev. It’s a prime example of how an own label can develop in terms of the range of products as well as volume sold.

“By having our own brand, if we identify a need or demand for a particular product, we can source it or develop it with full control of the quality specification and production process, which we closely monitor to ensure no deviation, and bring it into the range,” said Lauder.

Central Foods has recently introduced three new gluten-free chicken products to the Golden Valley Foods portfolio, as it recognized that there’s an increasing demand for gluten-free items in the foodservice sector.

Another addition to the company’s own brand offerings is the KaterBake range of baked goods, which includes mini doughnut balls and mini filled muffins. Also offered are beetroot and pumpkin flavored wraps.

“It’s important to offer own brands, as it supplements the branded manufacturers who don’t always offer smaller, tertiary lines that chefs may need,” said Lauder. “It’s also important where cost is the issue. Different outlets in foodservice will have different price points, depending on their customers, location and other factors. For some, branded products are ideal.”

Although the frozen own label sector is growing, there is still room for development throughout all types of frozen food. By offering own brand products, over a range of tiers, suppliers will be giving their customers choices at a range of price points ensuring everyone’s catered for. – Reported by Sarah Welsh

KaterBake Beetroot KaterBake Pumpkin Wrap lscape available from Central Foods 545KaterBake private label beetroot and pumpkin flavored wraps from Central Foods are suitable for vegetarians and vegans.

In Frozen Food Merchandising, Eye Appeal is Buy Appeal

Merchandising is key to selling products in the retail sector, particularly frozen goods, which are sometimes overlooked by consumers. With the Deep Dive Survey from HIM! Research and Consulting showing that 42% of retailers in the United Kingdom agree that frozen food is important to the success of their business, getting merchandising right is vital.

It’s clear to see why store managers concentrate most of their efforts on perishable grocery products at the entrance of the store – after all, it’s easy to make brightly colored fruit and vegetables look enticing. However, when it comes to frozen products, it’s not quite that simple. This is why merchandising plays an integral role in the success of any frozen food line.

Freezer aisles in supermarkets are incredibly crowded, creating an environment in which brands really need to compete to be noticed. This is no mean feat when stocking frozen food cases and cabinets, as there are limitations to what can realistically be achieved.

New Forest“Frozen packaging needs to make even more of an impact to entice buyers,” said Christina Veal, director at Lymington, Hampshire, England-based New Forest Ice Cream. “As customers also have to make a more conscious effort to look in the freezer to view products, it is even more important that each product stands out and has visual appeal.”

One way in which retailers have started to add curb appeal in the frozen section is to introduce more premium products. From Lidl’s Croquembouche and Sainsbury’s Toffee and Pecan Roulade to the Asda’s Extra Special Golden Baked Salted Caramel Cheesecake and Tesco’s Finest Strawberries and Cream Tart – the majority of supermarkets are realizing the pull of premium in the freezer aisles.

Brioche Pasquier MACARONS CLASSIQUE“By offering a few well-chosen premium products from the freezer, an operator can draw attention to the frozen range and tempt customers into treating themselves,” said Matthew Grenter, sales manager at Milton Keynes-based Brioche Pasquier UK.

Standing Tall

One game changer in the frozen aisles was the move from chest freezers to open and upright models, which give greater scope for displays. The Iceland chain is a prime exemplar of the importance of innovative merchandising in the frozen sector.

ICELAND CLAPHAM PRESS 300“Iceland food stores introduced upright freezers which look like conventional refrigeration units, allowing them to stock produce facing the customer,” explained Paul Colback, a freelance retail innovation consultant. “They have invested in quality equipment, so three’s no condensation or ice formation on the glass, thus allowing customers to see all products clearly.”

Iceland Foods has been a pioneer in enhancing the reputation of frozen food and has achieved this through altering the customer’s experience in their stores. They manage consumer perceptions by taking shoppers on a journey, starting with the introduction of perishable items at the front of the store.

“They are establishing quality and reassurance early on in customers’ experience by offering fresh produce and food-to-go,” said Colback. “That first journey of managing what people are thinking about a store is vital.”

Word on the Street

Consumer insight is essential to improve merchandising, and according to IGD’s ShopperVista report, price is always at the forefront of shoppers’ minds. In fact, frozen meals ranked fifth out of 34 categories where price was an important consideration at the point of purchase.

“Although price plays an important role in shoppers’ purchase decisions, the majority of frozen meal shoppers are prepared to pay extra for what they perceive to be higher quality,” said Nick Downing, commercial director at IGD. “Frozen meals rank second out of 34 categories where shoppers agree that it’s worth paying a little extra to get better quality.”

Igniting consumers’ imaginations in the freezer aisle is essential to gain sales. From flavor innovation to unusual items rarely seen in the UK, frozen products have to work harder to earn their place on the shelves.

According to ShopperVista, flavor innovation is important to shoppers when it comes to frozen meals, as 28% chose a specific product because it was a different flavor or type that they wanted to try, versus a category average of 13%.

“Suppliers of frozen meals should look for opportunities to surprise and delight shoppers to increase experimentation,” said Downing. “For example: using new ingredients, different cuisines, seasonal or limited-edition products.”

He added: “Aligning innovation to different needs or occasions can increase product consumption and may attract new shoppers into the category. For example: developing meals for a dinner party, or late evening snack, or meals to consume post-exercise.”

Location, Location, Location

The position of products can have a huge impact on sales. End displays are often more successful because they are highly visible to customers walking up and down the aisle, and they are synonymous with sales or offers. In fact, 48% of shoppers taking part in the ShopperVista survey agreed with the following statement: “If a product is displayed at the end of an aisle I assume it is on special offer.”

Furthermore, 67% always particularly look at end of aisles for promotions, making them an essential tool to maximise promotional sales.

It’s these types of promotional strategies that can result in a change in shopper behavior. Price reductions will result in impulse purchases, pushing trials of new products, and multi-buy offers will help to increase basket size. The IGD report found is that consumers often struggle to determine if special offers are good value for money, therefore providing both the promoted price and the savings made may increase buy appeal.

Once again, Iceland Foods has tackled the issue of clear communication with customers by introducing digital displays in some stores that can relay a range of information to consumers.

“In place of a conventional piece of card with the product cost, stores can utilize digital technology to not only communicate prices and deals, but promotions, recipes, provenance and attractive imagery,” said Colback. “It allows stores to tell a story.”

Merchandising has the potential to alter the spending habits of customers, thus increasing spend. Although this is harder to pull off in the frozen food sector, innovation in terms of packaging and display, as well as investment in more customer-friendly freezers, has improved both customer experience and retail sales dramatically.

Frozen Facts

Here are some interesting statistics, courtesy of IGD’s ShopperVista:

  • Shoppers are moving to discounters to buy frozen food – one in five consumers are buying more of their frozen food from discounters now compared to 12 months ago
  • 59% of symbol stores, 11% independents follow planograms
  • 3% of transactions in symbol convenience stores include a frozen purchase.

All in all, the evolution of “smart selling” in frozen food aisles continues apace thanks to new merchandising techniques taking advantage of digital technology, development and new generation equipment. – Reported by Sarah Welsh