Historically, frozen foods and home delivery have not gone well together, but the pandemic may have driven consumers’ acceptance of the concept of receiving frozen meals on their doorstep.
The American Frozen Food Institute reported that 85 percent of online grocery shoppers included frozen foods in their order during the early stock-up days of the pandemic, compared with 73 percent who did so before the pandemic. The increase came amid surging interest among home-bound consumers in having frozen foods on hand for meal solutions.
Charlotte Myer, divisional merchandise manager, grocery, at e-commerce grocery chain FreshDirect, said demand for frozen pizza and frozen meals overall has remained steady as consumers have experienced “kitchen fatigue” from cooking at home.
“Frozen pizza sales have nearly doubled in recent months [vs.] the same timeframe last year,” she said, noting that frozen pizza crusts in particular have seen strong sales growth as consumers look for meal-prep shortcuts.
Sales of frozen pasta and ravioli have also surged, Myer said, as have frozen snacks and appetizers, and several frozen plant-based items such as meat alternatives.
“Nostalgic brands are also seeing a strong increase as customers are looking for the comfort of the brands they’ve known and loved for years,” she said.
New Models for Frozen Meals
Meanwhile, some culinary entrepreneurs have launched new frozen-meal delivery solutions that have proven themselves during the pandemic.
Joshua Brau, the former brand director at meal-subscription service Blue Apron, started his frozen gourmet meal business, Ipsa Provisions, about a month before the pandemic began in the U.S. He and his partner, Micah Fredman, have since seen demand for the company’s frozen gourmet meals exceed expectations.
Ipsa began delivering its heat-and-eat frozen dishes to a limited area within Manhattan and Brooklyn, but it has since expanded to neighboring Westchester County, New York, and most recently to the Hamptons on Long Island, where the frozen meals are available for pickup during designated times at specialty food retailer Harbor Market & Kitchen in Sag Harbor. Although Brau said he expected sales to slip during the summer as residents tend to flee the heat of the city—a trend exacerbated this year by the pandemic—he said he was pleasantly surprised by the order volume during the summer months, particularly among repeat customers.
Sales have since surged again since the beginning of September, Brau said. “People are back in their routines, kids are back in school, either at home or in person, and there is demand for the convenience we provide.”
Ipsa offers a chef-driven menu of dishes that can be heated on the stovetop or in the oven, designed to serve as the main course of a meal that customers might choose to supplement with a salad or fresh bread purchased elsewhere. The globally influenced menu includes dishes such as Moroccan Braised Chicken, Pozole Rojo, and Beef and Kimchi Stew with Korean Rice Cakes. The dishes rely heavily on organic, artisanal and locally produced ingredients sourced through suppliers that include the Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative—a nonprofit group of mostly Amish farmers in Pennsylvania—along with Happy Valley Meat Co., Baldor, Chef’s Warehouse, and Ace Natural.
Brau said the company has also begun to pursue fundraising to support its increasing volumes. Ipsa currently operates out of a leased commercial kitchen on a part-time basis, and Brau said he’d like to move into a dedicated space that can support higher production levels.
“The plan all along was to launch the business on a shoestring budget, and then raise money based on something that existed, rather than just an idea,” he said. “Now that we have more traction and more results, we are in a better position to fundraise than we were before.
“We have confidence that we have something really special,” Brau said.
Frozen Burritos for All
In Richmond, Virginia, a chef who had made a career out of cooking for big-name musicians on tour found himself without a gig when the pandemic hit, and returned to a concept he had already begun to explore before the pandemic: how to make frozen burritos that taste good.
After considerable testing of ingredients, recipes, and packaging, he launched Sous Casa, a frozen-burrito delivery business, that has been growing exponentially since stories about the company began appearing in local media.
“When we were first testing it out, we realized how convenient it was to have these delicious and tasty burritos sitting around the house,” Hamilton said. “We said then, ‘People are going to like this.’”
Hamilton found a space in the kitchen of a restaurant that had closed down, and hired delivery workers and kitchen staff to help with production. He made the commitment to donate one frozen burrito to local hunger-relief charities for each frozen burrito sold. The menu also includes a few varieties of bowl dishes. Prices are $3-$4.50 per item.
The most popular selections include the Frollo Verde burrito, made with roasted chicken, salsa verde, and Oaxacan cheese, and the Brrreakfast Veggie burrito, which features egg, chili verde, Monterey Jack cheese, and avocado. The menu also includes vegan, vegetarian, dairy-free, and gluten-free options.
Customers tend to order a variety when they first try the service, Hamilton said, then come back to stock up on their favorites.
He said one of his biggest concerns when he launched the business was that the items would thaw if left out on people’s doorsteps for too long, but that has not been a problem. The burritos and bowls are delivered in insulated containers that keep the items frozen for several hours, he said. Some customers leave coolers out for the deliveries, which can keep the items frozen all day.
Hamilton said he has plans for Sous Casa to expand its menu, and he expects the business to continue operating even after the pandemic has passed.
“We will have enough of a team working here to handle things themselves by the time bands start touring again full-time, but I don’t expect that to happen anytime soon,” he said.
Photo: Dafne Work