Brits’ passion for Eastern cuisines is the engine behind another year of solid growth in ready meals. And own label is raking it in

ready meals

Britain’s longstanding love affair with the East is blossoming. As dinners flock to adventurous restaurants offering everything from Indian street plates to Japanese dude food, their tastes in the kitchen are also branching out beyond the standard tikka masala or sweet and sour chicken. And ready meal and soup suppliers are taking note. As manufacturers bolster their ranges with spicier, more exotic offerings, sales of Indian, Chinese, Thai and other Asian ready meals are booming.

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Brits have forked out an extra £86.3m on such ready meals in the past year, a rise of 11.1% on volumes up 6.1% [Kantar Worldpanel 52 w/e 6 November 2017]. Thai ready meals are up by nearly a third, Chinese is up 11.4% and Indian has secured a 6.8% boost. Less mainstream cuisines in the UK - Japanese, Vietnamese and Malaysian - are up 86% on volumes up 44.6%. These flavours are all driving the general growth in the market, which itself has enjoyed a healthy 5% increase in value sales on volumes up 2.7%. So why are shoppers heading east more often for their midweek meals? And who’s cashing in?

Wider culinary trends have undoubtedly fuelled this fire for the east. Rave reviews for Indian street food restaurants such as London’s Imli Street and Masala Zone - specialising in Goan, Rajastani, Keralan and other regional specialities - have attracted interest in less mainstream Asian flavours. Meal kit brands such as HelloFresh and Gousto have started offering recipes for lesser known oriental dishes to their typically early-adopting clientele.

“Our taste scores show that our Japanese, Vietnamese and Malaysian dishes are some of the most popular that we offer,” says Gousto product development manager April Carter. “We’ve kept these flavours and dish types firmly in mind when developing our new Plant-based and Boost & Balance ranges, which feature recipes including ginger tofu & mushroom yakisoba noodles.”

Hello Fresh says some of its most popular recipes in 2017 were Sri Lankan, Thai and Vietnamese, with Korean and Japanese dishes “big hitters” too. At the time of writing, one the recipes of the week for Waitrose’s new meal kit subscription service Cook Well was a sticky Korean beef dish. Other regulars are a Japanese-style chicken curry and Malaysian laksa.

So it was only a matter of time before these flavours started hitting the supermarket aisles. “The rise in popularity of single dish cuisines and street foods is bringing street food into the supermarkets,” says Paul Brown, founder of ready meal pot brand Bol, whose lines include a Mushroom & Miso Super Soup and a Spiced Lentil Super Soup, developed in partnership with Nicole Pisani, the ex-head chef of top London Asian restaurant Nopi. “It’s fascinating to notice that it is not necessarily national but regional cuisine that is gaining particular attention.”

Brands such as Bol and Charlie Bigham’s, which first branched into curries back in 2014 and launched a Rogan Josh last October, can claim some credit for this. But the key growth driver is own label, up 8% to £2,961.1m on volumes up 6.4% in ready meals [Kantar] and 2.5% to £140.1m on volumes up 0.4% in soup [IRI 52 w/e 11 November 2017].

Significantly, these own-label ranges don’t represent a cheaper alternative to brands. In soup - overall sales of which have dipped 1.3% on volumes down 5.8% - own label carries a 6.3% premium over the market average, thanks in part to retailers’ ongoing push into the pricier chilled soup sector with their own brands. Rather than undercutting the brands, retailers are pushing for premium prices with exotic ingredients and far flung regional cuisines.

“Ready meals have seen strong growth this year across chilled and frozen, gaining £2.1bn and £30.4m respectively,” says Kantar Worldpanel analyst Helen Sale. “This has been driven by a combination of price increases and increased trip frequency within chilled, driven by own label in particular.”

Own label has certainly taken innovation seriously. In soups, the Tesco Finest range now features a pea recipe with the Japanese staple edamame beans, as a well as a sweet potato, coconut & chilli soup; Waitrose boasts a Keralan chicken soup; and the Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference fresh soup range includes Jamaican Jerk Chicken and Moroccan spiced chicken & chickpea lines.

Over in ready meals, more exotic lines are also helping to push growth for premium-tier own label. The latest additions to the Taste Range by M&S, the undisputed king of the ready meal with 21% share, include a Sri Lankan King Prawn Curry with spiced coconut and roasted potatoes. In terms of sales increases, Morrisons’ The Best lineup and The Co-op’s relaunched Irresistible range have emerged as particularly strong performers over the past year. Both have sought to attract more adventurous foodies: The Best range includes a Middle Eastern Shawarma Chicken line as well as sides including smoked paprika sweet potato chips; Irresistible boasts a Keralan chicken dish with coconut rice.

The Fit Kitchen brand - a range of low carb, high protein ready meals stocked by Waitrose and Sainsbury’s - is another of the year’s fastest growers, having racked up £2m in its first year on shelf [Nielsen 52 w/e 9 September 2017]. The range includes Malaysian, Singapore and Middle Eastern chicken dishes.

Such cuisines aren’t just booming in the supermarkets’ ready meal aisles: even instant soup and noodle brands report that Brits’ appetites are getting more adventurous.

All this hasn’t gone unnoticed by Britain’s bestselling chilled soup brand New Covent Garden, which is hoping to turn around a steep 12.7% decline on volumes down 15.6% with a programme of NPD aimed at tapping demand for more far-flung cuisines and healthier, functional food.

Nadine Maggi, MD of chilled and frozen at owner Hain Daniels, points to Covent Garden’s new Nutri-Soups range, which includes an Asian Souper Green line (a mix of green beans, peas, kale, spinach, coriander, chilli and lemongrass). She adds: “Chilled soup has seen a dip in shoppers, halting category growth, but as NPD enters the market in soup’s peak season of January it will bring in lapsed shoppers.”

It’s worthy of note that some of the most successful fresh soup players also boast some of the most exotic ranges. The sector’s star performing brand Yorkshire Provender has seen sales surge 11.8% to £10.6m [IRI]; the range includes piri piri chicken, Moroccan vegetable tarine and sweet potato & lentil dhal lines, for example.

Instant brand Mug Shot is bucking soups’ downward trend with value sales up 8.6% to £18.8m on volumes up 3.7% [IRI], and brand owner Symington’s says 2.7 packs of Mug Shot are sold every second in the UK. The brand cites ongoing sponsorship of the road cycling race Tour de Yorkshire for its success, as well as social media activity. It wants to drive further growth with a new madras noodles variant.

Part of the problem for soups is that staples such as cream of tomato and chicken don’t hold the same allure for younger consumers as they do the older generations, suggests soup marketing leader Christophe Jauffret at market leader Heinz, which has seen sales slip 0.9% to £182.7m on volumes down 6.6%
“The wet ambient soup category has experienced a challenging performance in the past few years, largely driven by reduced engagement from younger consumers,” he says. To address this, Heinz launched a £4m TV campaign aimed at focusing on the quality of the ingredients in every can. Plus, July saw the launch of the six-strong Heinz Soup of the Day range, including a fragrant Thai carrot & coconut line.

Healthy eating

Luckily, this experimentation with new Asian flavours fits well with another trend in ready meals and soups: health. Consumers no longer want meals packed full of salt and sat fat. Many of these new recipes are naturally better for you than the more stodgy dishes favoured in the past. Baxters, for example, has launched range of Super Good ‘superfood’ soups featuring Eastern health-boosting ingredients including ginger, oily fish, greens and turmeric in flavours including chicken noodle. It hopes this emphasis on ‘goodness and wellbeing’ will reverse the brand’s fortunes.

“Consumers are increasingly discerning and diligent in their choices so it is vital to focus on sourcing the very best ingredients, ensuring health benefits do not compromise flavour, and remain focused on providing the right products at the right time to the right consumers,” says Baxters marketing director Cara Chambers.

It seems like a solid strategy if last year’s sales are anything to go by. Healthy brands are steadily gaining ground; Slimming World was up a solid 7.2% to £57.2m in the past year [Nielsen] and Quorn is also performing particularly well, according to Kantar’s Sale. “Quorn has attracted over a million new buyers as it profits from the increasing popularity of ‘flexitarianism’. Helped also by a prevalent advertising campaign, Quorn has boosted shopper spend by nearly 40%,” she says.

“As well as this demand for convenience, positive health benefits are becoming more important for shoppers as they seek out higher vitamin content, their 5-a-day and fibre intake. This trend will provide opportunity for more nutritious and natural options to see success in the coming year.”

If health-orientated brands can tap growing demand for both more nutritious products and more exotic cuisines they’re on to a winner. WeightWatchers says its high protein Balance aromatic chicken line now accounts for 25.3% of its entire ready meals sales. That Fit Kitchen’s dishes are based on lesser known Asian cuisines is also significant.

Of course, all this doesn’t mean that British and European classics such as bangers & mash, cottage pie, macaroni cheese or lasagne are falling out of favour. Eastern and other exotic cuisines may be growing at a faster rate but this is generally from a smaller base. English ready meals are still the biggest segment of the market and are up 5% in value, 2.7% in volume; Italian is up 5.6% on volumes up 3.8% [Kantar].

Even in these more traditional segments, the same trend of experimentation with more unusual, exotic and premium ingredients can still be seen. For example, Kantar’s Sale notes strong growth for the premium M&S Gastropub range following the launch of new products including a venison lasagne.

The discounters are also driving sales of classic recipes with more premium twists. Lidl has seen its sales surge by 25.8% in the past year, thanks in part to booming sales of the Chef Select range of takeaway-style meals. Aldi is up a staggering 32.6%, thanks to similar efforts.

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Heading east: ready meal sales by cuisine

In September, the retailer launched a trio of Charlie Bigham’s-style chilled ready meals - macaroni cheese with pancetta, beef stroganoff and beef bourguignon - under the Specially Selected brand. At £3.99 for the macaroni cheese and £4.89 for the beef dishes, they’re half the price of Charlie Bigham’s branded equivalents, the retailer made no bones of pointing out.

“Millions of shoppers are buying our Specially Selected products every week because they know they match or exceed the quality of the very best ranges sold by our more expensive competitors,” said Aldi UK & Ireland’s CEO Matthew Barnes at the time, while pointing out that the overall Speciality Selected brand was on course to smash the £1bn barrier in coming months.

Such is the standard of these retailer products that they could easily rival your local takeaway. With that in mind, some supermarkets are looking to take on the likes of Deliveroo with their own speedy delivered-to-your-door offerings. M&S is trialling a food delivery service in which shoppers near the four participating stores can have ready meals delivered within one hour. Sainsbury’s one-hour Chop Chop service now reaches 1.7 million people in greater London and Tesco’s similar Now service is available in zones one and two.

Which means there is all to play for as retailers enter 2018 with even more adventurous takeaway-style recipes worthy of a big night in. Rather than ordering an Indian, could we soon be ordering an M&S?

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