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Product Spotlight: Ready-to-eat meals

Consumer demand for health, convenience drives sales of packaged meals

Retailers are welcoming RTE meals that fit the
    take-out foods niche. - Photo courtesy of Amazing Food Manufacturers
By April Forristall
December 01, 2007

Today's fast-paced, grab-and-go culture has elevated the role of foods that fit the convenience bill. While some consumers would prefer to eat healthful, home-cooked meals from scratch, a growing number are opting for more convenient foods that are still good for you. These demands have prompted seafood companies to create ready-to-eat (RTE) or ready-to-cook seafood options with high flavor profiles.

"[RTE meals are] first and foremost are convenient and good tasting," says Murray Rosen, president of Seafood America. "I think the health consideration is No. 3."

Seafood companies are developing products that fit the healthful and convenient profile. "Retailers are looking for this type of product, and seafood is an area where there's not a lot of this happening," says Rosen, adding that the refrigerated entrée category is approaching $2 billion and growing at a rate of about 9 percent annually.

Seafood America, of Warminster, Pa., launched its Dockside Classics line of refrigerated entrées two years ago. In 2006, due to consumer demand and a recognition that the RTE category would be more than a flash in the pan, the company introduced its Dockside Classics Instant Gourmet line of fresh entrées, including Shrimp Scampi, Shrimp Marinara and Fettuccini Alfredo with Real Crab Meat, all of which can be prepared in three minutes or less.

"We were looking for a next-generation product," explains Rosen. "We wanted to do something with a more complete, convenient, ready meal." Consumer response has been positive, and the company is adding a fourth item, Lobster Ravioli in Alfredo Sauce with a Touch of Tomato, in the spring.

Both Mar-Lees Seafood of New Bedford, Mass., and Amazing Food Manufacturers of Schaumburg, Ill., have recently launched entrée lines that are cooked en papillote to meet consumer demand for on-the-go eating.

The papillote package is a brown-paper cooking bag, similar to a microwave popcorn bag. The food cooks inside the bag, allowing natural juices to intermingle and retains moisture while providing robust flavors. The food lets off steam, saturating the inside of the bag with vapor. Meals are ready to eat within minutes.

"When we put a piece of fish in the bag, our system is designed around the fish; it retains moisture very well," explains chef Eric Carre, whose company, AFM, owns the patent on the papillote bags used for AFM and Mar-Lees. "Customers simply snip one side of the bag and [the fish] slides right out on to the serving dish," says Carre.

The Chef Papillote meal/package concept from AFM fulfills the consumer demand for simple packaging and taste.

"Most consumers today want better food that's nutritionally balanced and they want the delivery system simplified," says Carre. "They are tired of plastic bags and trays."

The Chef Papillote line includes nine varieties, such as Cajun Four Pepper Shrimp with Steamed Rice and Vegetables and Festive Seafood Paella. AFM plans to launch a half dozen more seafood meals in the future because, according to Carre, "if anything, these products are showing best in the seafood and fish business."

Mar-Lees' papillote collection under its Nantucket Supreme brand includes Miso Crusted Salmon with Wheat Noodles and Vegetables, Shrimp and Rice with a Cajun Four-Pepper Sauce and Tilapia and Yukon Gold Potatoes with Roasted Tomatoes and a Tarragon Mustard Sauce.

"Right now in America about $260 billion is spent in going to restaurants and bringing it home to eat," says Steve McDonnell, Mar-Lees' VP of sales, adding that consumers are driven to do so because local grocery stores' product quality doesn't meet expectations. "In [frozen food cases] right now, it's fried chicken. Retailers are finally waking up to the fact that their customers are spending three times on take-out from restaurants than in stores."

Carre says demand for the Chef Papillote line has been so high since its release a little over a year ago, the company has produced more than 3 million meals - without even marketing it.

"The beauty of the meal is that it slides out of the bag completely presented as if in a restaurant," explains Carre. "Practically 100 percent of people come back and say it tastes exactly like [it was made at] a restaurant, or if they made it at home," he says. "Customers love the process because it's very interactive. It's simplified and convenient and people are very into that."

RTE meals with seafood are an ideal combination to provide consumers with the quality, flavor, nutrition and convenience they desire. As a category that will continue to expand, there couldn't be a better time for seafood companies to jump on the convenience bandwagon.


Editorial Assistant April Forristall can be e-mailed at aforristall@divcom.com


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