Fresh has been the “sexy” play on food for the past several years as more consumers focus on buying fresh produce, deli and bakery items as opposed to canned and packaged alternatives carrying more sodium and preservatives.
Walmart has invested heavily in its fresh foods business, from working with suppliers to increase shelf life to more employee training on the best way to handle fruit and vegetables once it gets the products from suppliers. While Walmart has talked about efforts to revamp fresh foods, little has been said about the work going on in the retailer’s frozen food business.
Laura Rush, vice president and divisional merchandise manager over frozen foods at Walmart, spoke to more than 50 suppliers and business people Wednesday (March 13) at the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce’s WalStreet Fireside Chat breakfast.
“Frozen is no longer taboo,” Rush said. “Frozen foods are evolving through innovation.”
She said about two years ago Walmart began to reinvigorate the frozen category that was all but forgotten amid the fresh craze. Rush said the retailer continues to work on revamping the frozen category, which is likely going to be a three-year journey. Rush said work is underway to re-create the shopping experience for consumers who might never travel the frozen aisles for anything but ice cream and chicken nuggets.
Rush said when she came to the frozen category from fresh bakery two years ago, she was surprised to see there were some healthier, fresher frozen products with clean labels hiding in the freezer cases – products like Caulipower pizza, a frozen product that was created by Gail Becker out of need. Becker left her corporate job to create tasty food for her two young sons with Celiac Disease. Becker, who also took part in the Fireside Chat, said she worked with Walmart as a startup and got her product in Walmart stores in September 2018, after launching the company the year before.
“Walmart took a chance on Caulipower. We were a new company trying to fit into a large ecosystem, but Walmart helped us every step of the way. It’s hard to believe but we were actually in Walmart before we were in Sprout’s,” Becker said.
Becker said a void in the market, led her to start Caulipower geared toward those with severe gluten allergies. She said the brand has now become one of the top-selling better-for-you pizzas in the world.
Caulipower’s pizza has a cauliflower crust, lean all-natural uncured turkey pepperoni without artificial ingredients. The brand also sells a three cheese, a Margherita, and a veggie with a plain or paleo crust version of the product.
Rush said products like Caulipower pizza are sometimes hard to find in the crowded freezer cases that have changed little in the past two decades. She said consumers rarely venture down the freezer aisles unless they dart straight for the ice cream, another category turned upside down by the Halo Top craze. Halo Top is a low-fat ice cream that reduced the calorie count by up to 1,000 calories per pint. Rush said the typical pint of Halo Top is 350 calories compared to 1,200 calories or more for popular full-cream varieties like Ben & Jerry’s or Blue Bell.
Rush said Walmart is in the midst of changing the way innovative frozen products are merchandised. She said it will take some time, but she envisions frozen fruit being sold next to the fresh fruit. She said either works great in smoothies, but perishable fruits do have some preservatives to extend shelf life up to 5 days. She emphasized that the frozen fruit without added sugar and color preservatives is just as fresh, if not fresher.
Rush said she has learned at Walmart that quality is non-negotiable with consumers. She said the price is important, but consumers will not compromise on quality to save money. She said in the near future Walmart plans to turn its frozen business around like the fresh category. She said the innovative brands will be easier for consumers to find.
Rush said her friends and at least half of the audience polled on Wednesday said they did not regularly shop the frozen food section of the store. She said this has to change and Walmart will look for more ways to spotlight the frozen fresh foods so consumers can easily find them near the store perimeter where they tend to shop.
Sam Rockwell, a co-founder of Waffle Waffle & Happi Foodi, was also on the panel speaking about frozen food innovations. He said frozen food is the best way to get restaurant quality or better cuisine at home without cooking at home. His company works with Walmart to develop high quality, better-for-you foods that carry the coveted Whole 30 designation for consumers who follow the Paleo diet or those just trying to eat unprocessed foods.
Happi Foodi is also working with Walmart to elevate the perception around frozen foods. He said one of the first things Waffle Waffle and Happi Foodi did was make sure the heated product looks like what is presented on the packaging.
Dave Perkins, founder and CEO of Beetnik Foods, said during the meeting that consumers want clean labels and fresh quality at the right price. He said such metrics, primarily taste, either drive success or failure with frozen foods, just like every other part of the store.
“Frozen food shoppers are primarily looking for convenience. They are busy families looking for dinner options or quick lunches. But opportunity doesn’t just exist around what people like to eat, it is also about what they can and cannot eat,” Perkins said.
Like Becker, Perkins founded his food venture in search of healthy food options for his daughter who suffers from severe food allergies. Becker said he first linked up with Walmart at the Natural Product Expo. Beetnik sells frozen organic entrees across 7,000 retail outlets, including Walmart. He said frozen foods can be high quality and they don’t contain all the preservatives as shelf-stable or some fresh foods. He also credited Walmart for being open to working with Beetnik in a collaborative fashion that benefits both sides.