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Spotlight: Convenience meals

Steam-based retail products make inroads with seafood suppliers

Trident's meal line won accolades at this year's
    Alaska Symphony of Seafood. - Photo courtesy of Trident Seafoods
By Lauren Kramer
September 01, 2009

While an economic recession can mean thin times for many in the food industry, it can be a boom for those in the retail convenience meals business.

"People are tending to stay home more for meals, and value-added convenience meals make the experience of eating in that much easier," says George Kouri, COO at Sea Star Seafood in Marlborough, Mass.

Sea Star in April launched its Beacon Light Steam Series, which consists of a range of microwaveable, flavored, dry seasoned fish that cooks from frozen in less than five minutes. The line includes salmon, cod, haddock, tilapia and mahimahi, all with dry seasoning and no gluten or salt, and is poised for success, says Kouri.

"It has great nutritional value, is extremely convenient, offers odor-free cooking because it's microwaveable and makes the experience of cooking fish, which is sometimes difficult, extremely easy and consistent," he says.

Beacon Light products use a micropore cooking technology, which allows cooking vapors to escape through the plastic food pouch. "It's completely different from what's out there, and this technology ensures the moistness stays in the fish when it's cooked," says Kouri. It also means the meal cooks faster than other products on the market, at an average of three-and-a-half minutes.

"I think convenience meals will grow and the category will become increasingly popular, especially in this economy and with today's lifestyles," Kouri says.

Trident Seafoods in Seattle recently added a flavorful sauce or marinade to its cod, salmon and tilapia portions.

"We wanted to deliver a pre-sauced, frozen portion that dresses up the fish in a visual and culinary sense, and takes the 'what do I do with this?' out of the equation, at least as far as fish and sauce are concerned," says Trident spokesman John van Amerongen. "We offer serving suggestions that include rice and pasta, or plating it on a simple bed of wild greens. The sauce dresses the side as well."

Trident's retail and foodservice meal line includes Thai Chili and Sesame Teriyaki Salmon, Mediterranean Cod and Lemon Herb and Southwest Style Tilapia.

"Judging from the response at the Alaska Symphony of Seafood, where we won both the retail and foodservice new-product categories, I'd say the response to our products has been very positive," says van Amerongen.

"The challenge," he says, "is to develop the various components so they'll cook from frozen properly, i.e., one with the other in the same amount of time. If the sauce evaporates before the fish is done, it's not working as well as it should."

Given the rushed lifestyle of most consumers, the opportunity to cook-from-frozen tonight is still a valuable option. "There are not a lot of folks soaking dry beans overnight just yet," he says. "Time is still money for consumers, even if they have more time than money."

According to The Nielsen Co., sales of overall frozen seafood entrées were up 3 percent to $377.1 million sold during the 52 weeks ending July 11 in the U.S. food, drug and mass-merchandiser store channels. During that period, frozen seafood dinners were down 4.8 percent in dollar sales and down 5.1 percent in unit volume from the prior year.

Most operators are optimistic about the future. "We really have no idea at this point who will succeed and which products will succeed," says Tom Sunderland, marketing director at Ocean Beauty, also based in Seattle. "What we do know, however, is that we're in the midst of a period of explosive growth, evidenced by the explosion in new product innovation and distribution, and by the range of manufacturers and brands that are jumping into the business."

Ocean Beauty offers a range of convenience meals including Southwest Salmon, Citrus Herb Salmon, Mandarin Orange Salmon, Lemon Butter Flounder and Sicilian Tilapia. The company is also working on another line of microwaveable entrées.

It can be challenging to add seafood to convenience meals because of fluctuating price points, the seasonal production of wild species and consumer resistance, because the United States is not a seafood-eating culture, says Sunderland.

One seafood-based convenience meal that continues to thrive is sushi, says Devan Nielsen, president of the DNI Group in Novato, Calif. The company sells softshell crab, nobashi shrimp, steamed butterflied shrimp and precooked tempura shrimp to restaurants that make sushi, and Nielsen says the demand for sushi in high-population centers is growing.

"I think more people in the Midwest are discovering sushi, that it's a grab-and-go convenience food that is lower in calories than many other options out there," he says. "Sushi is becoming a mainstream American food both in restaurants and retail, and I don't see the demand for it leveling off anytime soon."

 

Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia

 

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