In Austin, Texas, where Whole Foods Market was born 37 years ago, a pair of retail foodservice operators wage war over the lucrative battleground of health-focused, grab-and-go prepared meals and desserts sold to consumers at retail stores and supermarket kiosks across the country.

Founded in 2006, Austin-based My Fit Foods operates food commissaries that supply 12 locations in Dallas-Fort Worth, five in Austin, two in Oklahoma, eight in Southern California, and three in Arizona. H-E-B and Target also carry My Fit Foods products at certain Texas stores. My Fit Foods had expanded into Chicago, but that ended in October 2016 when Austin-based archrival Snap Kitchen declared victory in the Windy City once My Fit Foods closed its last Chicago store.

Founded in 2010, Snap Kitchen has exploded to 45 locations: seven in Austin, 12 in Dallas-Fort Worth, 12 in Houston, seven in Chicago and seven in Philadelphia. They also have locations inside select Whole Foods Market stores.

Both My Fit Foods and Snap Kitchen specialize in “healthy” prepared grab-and-go meals, and sweets are integral to the menu. For desserts, the focus is on calorie counting.

For instance, each Snap Kitchen dessert is 300 calories or less, and prices range from $2.49 (brownie or coconut macaroons) to $3.99 (key lime pie, strawberry cheesecake or chia date pudding). Priced at $2.99 apiece, chocolate chip cookies and chocolate mousse round out the desserts.

The entrée choices at Snap Kitchen are more adventurous. One favorite is Bison Quinoa Hash; a small bowl of this gluten-free meal sells for $8.49 and contains 320 calories. Claire Siegel, Snap Kitchen’s lead registered dietitian, writes on the company’s blog that their chefs already incorporated four 2017 food trends into their menu. One is plant proteins.

“Alternative plant-based proteins make it even easier to skip the chicken or beef without feeling like you’ve sacrificed a thing,” Siegel writes. “Tempeh, a fermented soy product, is one of our favorites thanks to its nutty flavor and hearty texture.” She recommends that customers try tempeh in their Veggie Pot Pie ($6.99, 390 calories).  

“Consumers deserve a meal option that is without compromise: great food, great health and maximum convenience,” says David Kirchhoff, Snap Kitchen’s chief executive officer since 2015 after a long management career at Weight Watchers International. “Snap Kitchen is all of these things—truly the holy grail of future facing food.”

Kirchhoff, who wrote a best-selling book titled “Weight Loss Boss,” is determined to make it easier and more convenient for people to eat healthy. The just-released Snap Kitchen app for iPhone promises to help consumers plan nutritious meals, order ahead for pickup, check reward balances and (soon) arrange for delivery. In Chicago, the company works with DoorDash for delivery of catered meals in a pilot project.

An ever-changing landscape

Food manufacturers, retailers and food service operators are connecting with how Americans eat in a variety of different ways, according to The NPD Group. Further, on-the-go meals direct from the grocery store continued to capture the attention of Americans in 2016, and the growth of the “grocerant” is in full swing across the US, according to a new Nielsen report.

“The search for white space, growth occasions and new product opportunity will be more important than ever for food companies and foodservice operators in 2017,” says David Portalatin, vice president, food industry analyst at The NPD Group, and author of Eating Patterns in America. “Opportunities to grow and innovate are out there, but the key to finding them in the coming year will be staying in touch with the consumer.”

The battle for share of stomach will intensify, and winning the battle may depend on how food reaches kitchen tables at home. Food manufacturers may capitalize on consumers’ desires for fresh, authentic foods, while foodservice operators increasingly will leverage technology to get their food on tables at home, according to NPD. “At the intersection of this trend is the retailer, who will continue to blur the line between retail and foodservice.”

While many consumers are picking up meals to go, Nielsen reports, others are just looking for ways to save time on food prep. Value-added fruits and vegetables also generated exceptional growth, locking in sales growth of 9.4 percent and 8.9 percent, respectively, in 2016. Prepared meat is also helping busy consumers get a jump-start on meals at home, cutting down preparation and cooking time, leaving only side dishes to prepare.

Carrying on momentum

Tesco’s Fresh & Easy experiment may have failed, but the momentum to make prepared foods more convenient carries on. My Fit Foods, for example, offers dozens of quick, nutritious options for meals, drinks and snacks, as well as for all types of dietary attributes (dairy free, gluten free, low carb, low sodium, vegetarian).

In September 2016, My Fit Foods announced it has secured an investment from the American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation’s largest grassroots organization of farmers and ranchers, and existing majority investor Marlin Equity Partners, a global investment firm with over $3 billion of capital under management. The investment will support My Fit Foods’ growth strategy to pursue partnerships with the nation’s top grocery retailers.

“The American Farm Bureau Federation is an ideal investment partner for My Fit Foods as Farm Bureau members share our dedication to providing customers with accessible, fresh, high-quality ingredients,” says David Goronkin, chief executive officer of My Fit Foods. “This investment positions us to easily expand the availability of My Fit Foods while working directly with the American farming community.”

For example, My Fit Foods partnered with Stubb’s Legendary Bar-B-Q, makers of authentic Texas barbecue sauces, marinades and rubs, to launch a limited-time menu item – Stubb’s Flat Iron Steak – exclusively for Texas and Oklahoma locations. “Barbecue is serious business in the South, and no one does it better than Stubb’s,” says Goronkin. “We are committed to providing our customers with high-quality, flavorful options.”

Rebranding for the right fit

Snap Kitchen is launching a new brand to stand strong for years to come, according to the company. Developed with design firm Pentagram, the recent rebrand includes full shop redesigns along with a modernized logo, new packaging and an optimized labeling system that allows customers to make smart, fast decisions. The newly imagined shops can be experienced at locations across Austin, Houston, Dallas, Chicago and Philadelphia. With the rebrand comes its first ad campaign that aims to start a “Revolution in Not Cooking,” leading consumers to find more productive ways to spend their precious time.

With healthy, handmade meals ready to pick up, heat and serve, Snap Kitchen makes not cooking a reality.

The brand’s personality comes to life with messages like “Healthy Eating Sucks. So We Fixed It.” running on hyper targeted billboards, bike share racks, transit advertising, CRM, digital and social media. The campaign was created in partnership with Alex Bogusky’s agency network COMMON, a creative accelerator and community for social businesses, designed to catalyze and promote ideas that take care of the planet and all the creatures on it.

On the culinary front, Snap Kitchen is working on guilty pleasures like beef brisket to make the juicy cut of beef healthy. Two new signature dishes, Slow Roasted Brisket Tacos and Brisket Hash, are packed with brisket, braised low and slow cooked for 10 hours, bringing out its juicy flavor, while maintaining a lower fat content than other cuts of red meat.

“To many people’s surprise, brisket, when prepared correctly, is incredibly lean and nutritious, making it an ideal ingredient for a satisfying guilt-free meal that you will crave,” says Ethan Holmes, executive research and development chef at Snap Kitchen. “We really challenged ourselves with this menu to feature unanticipated ingredients and new spins on classics that you can’t find elsewhere.”

Snap’s chefs didn’t stop there. They created new meals featuring other home-town favorites as well as traditional ethnic recipes including the following:

Coconut Curry Beef: Starting with antibiotic-free beef poached in organic light coconut milk, seasoned with ginger garlic and cilantro, this tropical dish is tossed over a base of whole grain brown rice and garnished with Thai basil and vibrant chili oil (dairy free).

Turkey Picadillo Stuffed Peppers: Taking a Cuban twist on stuffed bell peppers, this meal features ground turkey picadillo and a homemade tangy tomato sauce for a balance of sweet and savory (Paleo and dairy free).

Whether Snap Kitchen, My Fit Foods or some new competitor that arises in the future wins out, it may all come down to critical issues like financing and location, as much as any factors. What is for certain is that consumers today want healthy foods and demand that they are convenient.