One use microwave meal istock

On the flip side, brands that traded primarily on convenience fared less well. Take Rustlers, down 0.9% to £110.4m

Microwave meals have gone posh. As Brits stayed in more, this year’s winning brands had to offer more than simply a quick fix. They had to deliver on culinary credentials, too.

All of which is exemplified by this year’s biggest winner, Charlie Bigham’s. It soared 33.4% to £127.2m, well ahead of the 3.6% growth in chilled ready meals. “We certainly benefited from people going out less and wanting a high-quality alternative to cooking at home,” says CEO Patrick Cairns.

This appetite for finer fare spanned the market. Premium frozen brand Cook, for example, delivered 15% value growth – an even more impressive achievement given the 3.5% decline in frozen formats, as they struggled to match the highs of the first lockdown. 

“Brands that provide restaurant-quality alternatives to eating out enjoyed a surge of popularity as foodservice outlets closed and consumers looked to replicate the experience at home,” says Carol Ratcliffe, senior analytics executive at NielsenIQ.

If those brands were a restaurant name, all the better. Itsu’s frozen range soared 89.3% to £18.6m. Wasabi, whose chilled meals launched exclusively into Sainsbury’s in 2019, soared 72.5% to £17.5m. It attributes that growth to its “strong brand recognition and credibility”. Buoyed by that performance, Wasabi recently expanded its range with Noodle Bowls and is now planning its first ATL activity, due to land in 2022.

On the flip side, brands that traded primarily on convenience fared less well. Take Rustlers, down 0.9% to £110.4m.

“For a brand that plays a role in enabling the busy lives its consumers lead, and that has a significant presence in the food-to-go mission, lockdowns presented some level of risk to our volumes,” says Elaine Rothballer, marketing controller at Kepak. The brand is fighting back, though, with on-trend NPD such as its Meatless Maverick burger, launched at the tail end of October.

It’s a similar story for Pot Noodle. It suffered a 7.6% dip in value (though volumes were up 0.5%). It’s now looking to tap demand for more premium, world flavours with its Fusions range, launched  in September.

Top launch 2021

Classic Italian Recipe Kits | Rana

Top launch Rana

It’s an Italian ready meal, but not as we know it. Rana’s range of nifty kits has a novel cooking process: pour sauce over fresh egg pasta, microwave, and add parmesan and/or herbs for a finishing touch. Having originally launched with four variants (pictured, rsp: £4), their popularity prompted two more: Mushroom Linguine and Risotto Milanese. The kits are available in Waitrose, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Ocado, and generated nearly £2m in their first eight months.

The Grocer’s Top Products Survey 2021: who’s up, who’s down – and our overview of the key trends