Center Store Offers Solutions to Rival Meal Kits

Bridget Goldschmidt
Managing Editor
Bridget Headshot

No doubt about it: Meal kits are growing in popularity. From their beginnings as items ordered over the internet and delivered to consumers’ doorsteps, they’ve migrated to grocery store shelves, with retailers such as Kroger and Publix offering their own versions.

Makers of certain shelf-stable products, however, want shoppers to know that there are other ways to whip up a meal with a minimum of fuss.

“The ability to stock up, and to keep product on hand for a quick weeknight meal, is a need that isn’t going away, and meals with brief shelf lives simply can’t help with that,” points out Mike Siemienas, spokesman for Minneapolis-based General Mills, maker of the Helper lines of packaged meals that perhaps collectively represent the granddaddy of shelf-stable meal solution concepts, to which a protein such as beef, chicken or tuna is designed to be added. “Hamburger Helper and other boxed dinners offer consistency and convenience that busy families have come to rely on.”

The company continues to improve its Helper and Suddenly Salad offerings, according to Siemienas, by “now using 100 percent real cheese in our Helper cheese varieties, for instance, and all of our top-selling Helper products are free of artificial flavors and colors from artificial sources. Moving forward, we will continue to introduce new flavors and sizes to appeal to a broader range of consumers.” General Mills has also upped its price promotion spending and is working with retailers “to plan more robust display and on-pack offerings,” he says, adding, “We’ve also focused more on social media and experiential marketing to better reach the Millennial consumers, who are increasingly attracted to the reliable flavor and convenience of brands like Helper.”

Keeping it Simple

“Many of our Campbell shelf-stable meal solutions are designed for convenience, simplicity and ease, while fresh meal kits may require more engagement with prep, a greater time commitment, and can vary in serving size and investment,” notes Rebecca Poolman, senior marketing manager, U.S. retail, meals and sauces at the Campbell Soup Co., based in Camden, N.J. The company knows something about the meal-kit space, having recently “entered a strategic partnership with Chef’d, which allows us to partner on fresh meal kits and test and learn with an experienced online meal partner,” as Poolman puts it.

That doesn’t mean that Campbell has given up on shelf-stable meal options, however — far from it. The company introduced 11 varieties of Ready Meals for the Prego, Pace and Campbell’s brands in 2016, and launched Organic SpaghettiOs this past August, while its “on-label Prego recipes offer additional inspiration and convenience when creating a family-friendly meal by clearly laying out what’s required [in] ingredients and time,” says Poolman.

“Our meal solutions are created to make things as simple as possible for our consumers when they’re trying to plan for the dinner occasion, and we’ve tried to use a similar approach with our merchandising,” she continues. “To aid our customers (retailers), we’ve created a video that provides high-level detail from our consumer research and highlights meal solution options across our entire product portfolio that consumers can access through a variety of ways.”

Making a move similar to Prego’s is Fort Worth, Texas-based Renfro Foods, whose salsas, including such specialty flavors as Craft Beer, “come with easy-to-use recipes on the label [and] add value to healthy meal preparation, serving as a flavor booster and saving consumers time and money,” according to President Doug Renfro. He adds that the company “has been using coupon machines, smartphone coupon apps and, more recently, shelf talkers, as well as an email blast to about 500,000 in the Northeast” to help sell its product line.

Cucina & Amore spurs trial of its shelf-stable meal solutions by holding in-store product tastings.

Bold Customization

In common with most of its CPG counterparts, Chicago-based Kraft Heinz has delved into the prevailing “macrotrends” to understand what consumers require of meal solutions. As a result of this investigation, the company’s head of meals, Jessica Gilbertson observes that “one insight we know is that consumers are eager to create a delicious meal for themselves, but have a demand for more convenience. We can focus both current portfolio positioning and future innovations to excite the consumer around how our category can play into this need. One example would be a solution that allows consumers to customize their meal at different levels, providing them the option to add more, while also giving them the chance to create something quickly.”

Last February, Kraft Heinz launched within its Cracker Barrel brand portfolio the Cracker Barrel Oven Baked product line, which Gilbertson believes “can lead in driving such trends within the shelf-stable category.” Featuring hearty macaroni crafted to hold the bold Cracker Barrel cheese sauce, the item allows home cooks to “customize the experience by adding our custom spice mix, placing the dish in the oven and baking the pan to perfection before finishing it off with crispy, crunchy breadcrumbs.”

When it came to merchandising, the company opted to be just as bold. “The first strategy we implemented was to create packaging that was truly disruptive on shelf,” explains Gilbertson. “We chose to put the pasta and all of the ingredients in a film bag, compared to traditional boxes typically found in the category. While that allowed the product to pop on shelf, we needed to ensure consumers’ continued interest in the shelf-stable meal aisle. To do this, we utilized shelf talkers to catch shoppers’ eye when they were in store, and couponing to drive trial.”

Eat on the Go

Another important consideration is that it’s not just about the dinner occasion: Center store meals can go anywhere and be eaten anytime. “Shelf-stable meal solutions like our Quinoa Meals are convenient because you don’t have to worry about refrigeration,” says Laila Banejad, director of media relations at Richmond, Calif.-based Cucina & Amore. “You can keep it in your desk at work or in your pantry, and eat it when it’s most convenient for you, rather than second-guessing … whether or not it’s still good to eat.” This autumn, the brand is adding three varieties of Farro Meals, featuring a combination of cooked farro and red and white quinoa, to its lineup.

Banejad offers the opinion that “shelf-stable meal solutions can compete by offering healthy, all-natural ingredients that taste delicious without extra preservatives and unnecessary additives, and by [being] affordable.”

In fact, despite the rising prevalence of fresh meal kits at ecommerce and now in supermarkets, manufacturers are optimistic about further demand for nonperishable options. General Mills’ Siemienas says that “by continuing to find ways to offer easy dinners at an affordable price, shelf-stable meals will stay relevant for the foreseeable future,” and Kraft Heinz’s Gilbertson notes, “While we recognize that kitchens are evolving, [there] will always be a place for shelf-stable meal solutions with a variety of households and consumers.”

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