While some frown on the use of frozen products, most in the foodservice sector couldn’t get by without their sub-zero staples. In fact, a recent poll conducted by the British Frozen Food Federation (BFFF) found that 85% of pub chefs now accept that it is impossible to run a business using fresh food alone.
According to data from research body Horizons, the frozen food share of the foodservice market in 2013 was worth £2.24bn and latest figures indicate recent sales are buoyant — CGA Foodservice statistics to September 2015 show wholesale sales of frozen food were up 4.8% year on year.
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Listen to our exclusive podcast with BFFF boss Bryan Young to find out more about frozen food in pubs.
From Panang chicken curry and tartlettes au chocolat to focaccia and raspberries, frozen food has a lot to offer the time-pressured caterer, with a growing number embracing its convenience and quality. So, why are some chefs continuing to shy away from frozen foods?
According to Brian Young, chief executive of the BFFF, it’s about preconceptions amongst chefs. “Consumers are looking for a good menu, ambience and service and don’t really think about whether the food they are eating is [from] fresh, frozen or ambient,” he explains.
“What it comes back to is chefs’ perceptions,” he adds. However, the former managing director of Aunt Bessie’s argues that times are changing, with many chefs warming to frozen food.
“Chefs are embracing frozen more and more as it offers variety and superb quality at competitive prices,” he explains.
To support this claim, Young cites the latest Perception and Usage of Frozen Food survey conducted on behalf of the BFFF in 2014.
The survey revealed that 95% of chefs and caterers were stocking and using frozen food, with 85% of chefs using it at least weekly in their establishment.
Of those surveyed 75 also believed that there was an unnecessary stigma and snobbery attached to frozen food — a 60% increase on 2011 results.
So, for those chefs who are still sceptical, what advantages can the use of frozen dishes or ingredients offer them?
“As more money continues to be invested into frozen food production and innovation, the quality of this expanding market continues to improve,” claims Young. “Chefs and caterers can feel confident they are offering high-quality, flavoursome food while ensuring food waste is kept to a minimum and preparation time is reduced,” he adds.
Using frozen also stacks up cost-wise, according to the BFFF chief. Research conducted by the University of Salford for BFFF in September 2012 found that, in general, costs were reduced by as much as 21.5% for a pub preparing and serving meals using frozen ingredients when compared with fresh/chilled. This saving jumped to 49% when using frozen ready meals. Other advantages such as year-round availability, consistency and variety of product should further persuade chefs as to the value of frozen foods.
So how can chefs capitalise on this changing market and use frozen to ease pressure in their kitchens and cut costs while also ensuring their offer meets consumer demand for premium quality?
‘Marriage between fresh and frozen food’
According to Young, a marriage between fresh and frozen should be encouraged, with the amount of frozen food chefs opt to use depending on the time, resources and skillset available to them. “Chefs can put their signature on frozen products by using their own sauces, ingredients or dishes.”
He also explains that using frozen can be a good way to extend food service hours. “Frozen products can be used to offer breakfasts, morning and afternoon snacks without over-stretching the kitchen, while fresh can be reserved for main service times,” he says. “Frozen is your best friend and absolutely is as good as fresh.”
So, what are the biggest areas of growth as frozen food enjoys this renaissance?
According to Neil Lunn, marketing manager of French patisserie producer Brioche Pasquier, a demand for more exotic food choices is becoming increasingly more commonplace. “As consumer tastes evolve and food choices become more sophisticated, premium-quality frozen products, which deliver an authentic taste experience, can often be far better than making the same product fresh to order,” says Lunn.
The company has recently added a frozen tartlette au chocolat to its range, using a traditional recipe and classic French method to create an authentic-tasting dessert.
Food wholesaler Brakes is also tapping into the world cuisine market, introducing a range of on-trend prepared meals with recipes that pull together pan-Asian, modern European and North African flavours, reflecting the highest growth sectors in the rapidly-expanding prepared meals market.
The 11 individually-portioned dishes, some slow-cooked, include Moroccan beef, Freekeh chicken, paneer saag and gobi masala, beef goulash and Panang chicken curry.
While many of the new dishes can be used in their own right, others work as a base ingredient to create tagines, casseroles and stews, providing an easy and cost-effective way of expanding a menu.
Another key area in which frozen can assist the pub chef, is to meet the growing demand for free-from menu options, simplifying catering for special dietary requirements back-of-house.With Kantar Worldpanel reporting that more than half of Britons (55.2%) buy free-from products, caterers are increasingly looking for new dishes to satisfy this demand.
Swedish bakery Almondy has launched a new Creamy Chocolate Cake with Roasted Almonds to deliver on two free-from fronts — lactose and gluten-free.
The sweet treat will appeal to the one in five people who, according to Allergy UK, have a lactose intolerance as well as those who decide to buy free-from for lifestyle reasons. Almondy’s latest lactose-free dessert joins its gluten-free almond cakes, which feature confectionery favourites Toblerone and Daim as well as a peanut and caramel version.
Jennie Fisher, director of customer engagement at Brakes, says that with customers focused on reducing waste, time and labour costs, demand for specific frozen items has risen over the past two years.
Frozen individual patés, for instance, are proving very popular with chefs for whom banqueting is high on the agenda, as well as with small independent pubs that wish to offer something special at seasonal peaks or on everyday menus, without incurring the potential wastage that comes with offering fresh food.
While more traditional frozen vegetables remain very important within education and healthcare, sales of frozen vegetables have been falling across the foodservice sector.
Brakes has broadened into new areas such as premium vegetable side dishes that reflect this changing demand. New lines include seasoned potato and vegetable steak sides, creamy spiced lentils and whole green beans with garlic butter portions. Fisher says: “We see premium side dishes as a huge growth opportunity.
Chefs no longer want a long list of expensive ingredients and high levels of waste, so by moving to a frozen product, these aspects are removed. The key for us is to ensure the flavour of our products is not compromised so that chefs can deliver something with the taste, look and feel of something made in-house.”
Frozen fish sales up
While CGA Foodservice statistics to September 2015 show wholesaler sales of frozen fish were up by 5.6% year-on-year, Fisher believes there is still a consumer perception that fresh is superior to frozen.
However, her company tested this theory in October 2014 at a blind tasting between comparable fresh and frozen seabass and cod fillet samples. “Both the frozen seabass and cod products were preferred by the sample audience,” Fisher reports.
Mike Berthey, director at M&J Seafood agrees frozen fish can be as good as fresh. “Some frozen products — such as MSC-certified, frozen-at-sea cod and haddock fillets — are every bit as good as fresh, having been flash-frozen within four hours of being caught to ensure they retain their natural flavour and texture,” he says.
No conversation about frozen versus fresh would be complete without a mention of bread and bakery, with wholesaler sales of frozen bread enjoying a 1.8% year-on-year increase in 2015.
Choosing frozen bread and pastries enables caterers to offer customers variety, with thaw and serve ranges claiming to reduce waste, have a greater shelf-life, easier stock control credentials, reduced overheads and better consistency.
Red Tractor-certified bakers Speciality Breads has recently added to its growing selection of artisan rolls with the launch of a rustic sourdough and onion roll. Flying the flag for British bakers, the company, which offers more than 100 freshly-frozen handmade breads, has seen consecutive year-on-year growth in excess of 30% since 2012.
“Our selection of frozen breads is continuing to see incredible interest, especially in the pub sector,” explains managing director Peter Millen. “With consumers continuing to be adventurous with the food they eat and often selecting with their eyes, our bread can help pubs set themselves apart from rivals and charge a premium.”
The company, which boasted best-selling products that included focaccia rolls, glazed brioche buns and ciabatta slippers in 2015, is confident it can offer pubs a high-quality, consistent product day in day out.
“Most consumers honestly would not know that our breads come as a frozen product as they are all hand-finished by our artisan bakers before being frozen, immediately after being baked, to lock in all the flavour,” explains Millen.
One pub operator won round by the quality of Speciality Bread’s offer is the Stackpole Inn in Pembroke-shire. Gary Evans, owner of the freehold pub, switched to frozen breads after realising it didn’t mean a compromise on quality.
“We make pretty much everything in-house, but in high season we were struggling to keep up with demand,” says Evans. “We were only prepared to buy-in frozen if there was no compromise on quality and with Speciality Breads we felt there wasn’t one. The products we buy are as good as those we could make in-house.”
The pub now buys year-round from the company, stocking both its Couronne round loaf, which it uses with most of its starters, and the Pan Rustic roll, which is used at lunchtime to service the pub’s filled-roll menu. Serving more than 1,000 covers a week during high season, finding the right product was key for Evans.
There is no doubt frozen has a valuable role to play in pub kitchens and as consumer food choices become more sophisticated, using premium frozen products can be a better option than making the same product from scratch. It’s time to let go of the preconceptions about frozen food and embrace its convenience and quality.
To echo the words of BFFF’s Young, by choosing to embrace frozen food in their kitchens, chefs and caterers can take advantage of the versatility of frozen to help ensure their businesses remain competitive in an ever-changing eating-out market.