Thaw-and-eat foods fuel ‘smeals’ trend

Thaw-and-eat foods fuel ‘smeals’ trend

CHICAGO — Frozen foods that require a simple thaw and then are ready to eat without any heat are not new. Think Sara Lee Pound Cake, shrimp cocktail ring and orange juice concentrate.

But none of these qualify as a “smeal,” a term Mel Cash, chief strategy officer, Nestle USA, Arlington, Va., defines as a “snack that is substantial enough to count as a mini-meal.”

“Increasingly, we’re abandoning the model of three meals a day for a more hybrid routine including smaller meals and snacks throughout our day,” Ms. Cash said. “Our brand teams have been hard at work developing new products to fit the ‘smeals’ movement, like our personal-sized DiGiorno pizzas or our Hot Pockets Deliwich, a quick and easy sandwich that you can grab from your freezer in the morning, and that thaws in time for an afternoon snack.”

The new Hot Pockets Deliwich does not require heating, a first for the brand. Four varieties debuted this past May: cheddar and ham, turkey and Colby, cheese melt and pepperoni mozzarella.

The concept of a thaw-and-eat sandwich dates back to 1995 when The J.M. Smucker Co., Orrville, Ohio, debuted Uncrustables. When these frozen crustless sandwiches debuted, they were limited to peanut butter and jelly (grape or strawberry). Since, the company has expanded the brand with a range of products, including the recent back-to-school roll-out of Smucker’s Uncrustables Meat and Cheese Bites, which are intended to go straight from freezer to lunchbox.

Over the past few years, the company has significantly reshaped its portfolio to prioritize the Uncrustables frozen sandwiches business, John Brase, chief operating officer, said in a Dec. 14 investor day presentation. In 2022, sales of Uncrustables reached $511 million, a year ahead of the company’s target to pass the $500 million mark.

Ham and cheese uncrustable bitesPhoto: The J.M. Smucker Co.Chris Achenbach, director of brand strategy, said, “In addition to our focus on continued innovation, we remain committed to enhancing our production capacity to meet the incredible demand. This continued focus on delivering for consumers has always been a key value for the brand and it will be essential to realizing our goal of Smucker’s Uncrustables delivering $1 billion in annual sales over the next five years.”

The competition has taken note. Big brands like Hot Pockets and startups like Chubby Snacks, Los Angeles, are investing in growth through innovation and increased distribution.

Chubby Snacks — originally called Chubby Organics — made its debut in June 2020. Within 30 days of launching the initial prototypes — crustless, nut butter and jam-filled circle-shaped sandwiches — the company received a cease-and-desist letter from J.M. Smucker outlining a list of its potential violations.

“We found opportunity in the form of that letter,” said Dillon Ceglio, founder and chief executive officer. “The demand to change the shape of our sandwich or face legal action opened the door to a creative opportunity.”

Less than a year later, the company rolled out its new cloud-shaped sandwiches. Formulations were fine-tuned in efforts to position the product as an affordable, on-the-go superfood. The addition of an in-house registered dietitian and recipe developer allowed them to create fruitier, more flavorful jams without any additives, preservatives or “junk.”

“Our marquee flavor, strawberry jam and peanut butter, contains 8 grams of protein,17 grams of organic whole grain net carbs, including 6 grams of fiber and only 2 grams of natural sugar sweetened by Medjool dates,” Mr. Ceglio said. “Shaking up the food industry with better-for-you snack options has always been our dream. This new cloud design represents exactly that; our lofty vision to re-imagine traditional, sugar-filled snacks.”

Chubby Snacks grew from 30 retail doors to 550 in 2022, said Mr. Ceglio. They may be found in more than 30 states.

Kellogg Co., Battle Creek, Mich., has its own take on thaw-and-eat foods. Earlier this year, the company rolled out Eggo Grab & Go Liege-Style Waffles, the first-ever Eggo waffle that doesn’t require a toaster.

Eggo's grab-and-go leige-style wafflesPhoto: Kellogg Co.  The bistro-quality handheld waffles were crafted with busy parents in mind. They are inspired by a classic Belgian street food staple, featuring a golden brioche dough and baked through with crunchy bits of pearl sugar. The waffles are made with butter and are available in buttery maple and strawberry flavors. They are individually wrapped and thaw in under an hour. Infused flavors make them a convenient, mess-free on-the-go breakfast option.   

Brooklyn, NY-based Belgian Boys has been playing in this space for some time. While the company is currently transitioning its Belgium-produced frozen crepes, brioche french toast, pancakes and waffles from retail freezers to refrigerators, the department where they are sold throughout Europe, the waffles were America’s introduction to eating waffles at room temperature.  

“The waffles are individually wrapped and do not need to be heated,” said Anouck Gotlib, CEO of Belgian Boys. “This presents a lot of potential in other channels.”