KANSAS CITY - Throughout the pandemic, consumers had to prepare the vast majority of their meals at home, leading to more experimentation in the kitchen as well as demand for shortcuts to quickly pull together semi-homemade meals. Many found that heat-and-eat beef is a great option for busy families looking for ways to streamline dinner prep and creating meals the whole family will love.

When it comes to the category of heat-and-eat, convenience is only part of the story. Consumers have discovered that their supermarket can offer as many adventurous flavors as their favorite restaurants, at a lower price.

John Flynn, vice president of sales for Niman Ranch, Northglenn, Col., noted over the past five years, demand for heat-and-eat products has been steadily climbing but the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly accelerated the pace of consumer adoption of the category. In the last year alone, Niman Ranch has sustained double-digit volume and sales dollar growth.

“The ease of preparation, extended shelf life and versatility of these products provide both the consumer and retailer convenient meal solutions that taste great,” he said. “The convenience and versatility of heat-and-eat products are more attractive to today’s consumer than ever before. We are focused on making sure our products are meeting those needs while providing a great eating experience.”

A great example is the company’s Shredded Beef with Fat Tire Barbecue Sauce—which when combined with a few staples, a family can enjoy an easily customizable home-made dinner on the table in minutes.

“From enchiladas to tacos or piled high on a bun, this versatile product is perfect for a weekday or weekend eating occasion,” Flynn said. “Niman Ranch’s heat-and-eat and prepared beef offerings include Fearless Franks All Beef Hot Dogs, Shredded Beef with Fat Tire Amber Ale Barbecue Sauce, Uncured Summer Sausage and our pre-sliced deli meats including Pastrami and Corned Beef.”

Hormel Foods Corp., based in Austin, Minn., has always had a number of popular heat-and-eat products, with a roster that includes Lloyd’s Barbeque meats, Hormel refrigerated entrees and Hormel side dishes.

“During the pandemic, the fully cooked BBQ category grew by double digits,” said Eric Jacobson, brand manager for Hormel Foods. “With many restaurants not operating at normal levels, consumers turned to grocery stores to find products to meet their BBQ craving.”

In 2021, Sadler’s Smokehouse, which was acquired by Hormel last year, introduced a ready-to-eat Sadler’s Smokehouse beef brisket, pulled pork, pulled chicken and St. Louis Ribs available at select retailers this summer.

“Sadler’s Smokehouse products are pit-smoked low and slow, using butcher-quality cuts of meat and have 65 years of family barbeque tradition behind them,” Jacobson says. “These are ready-to-eat products for consumers longing for authentic pit-smoked barbeque without the mess and hassle.”

Currently, the product is available at Albertsons, Shaws, Associated Wholesale Grocers, Hy-Vee and Kroger.

Nancy Jo Seaton president of Seaton Food Consultants, Stamford, Ct., noted popularity of these items were huge in 2020, when everyone was stuck at home, but retail was focused on keeping their shelves stocked with whatever they could get their hands on, so capitalizing on an emerging trend was not the top priority.

“Now that we are emerging from lockdown, retailers have the luxury to focus more clearly on this trend and cater to their particular customer’s preferences,” she said. “For example, regional preferences for barbecue flavors and formats across the country vary, but each grocer knows what is the preference in their area.”

Seaton believes that eliminating pre-planning and offering interesting variety will boost the retailers’ sales against restaurant delivery and in-home meal kits in the mind of their consumer positioning heat-and-eat options.

Mayer Gold, vice president of operations at Seasons Supermarket, noted he’s seen a lot of gravitation toward heat-and-eat meals, especially those that are proportioned out, so there’s no unwanted leftovers or clutter in the refrigerator.

That’s why many of the individual heat-and-eat beef products sell well and are attractive to consumers concerned about food waste.

“Even with more foot traffic now in the stores, while our deli counter sales are almost back up to pre-pandemic numbers, the heat-and-eat category has not declined,” Gold said. “Convenience remains key.”

Don’t forget breakfast

While many of the heat-and-eat products are designed for dinner meals, Mason Dixie Foods recently introduced a heat-and-eat sausage breakfast sandwich that has done well at grocery stores.

“I think due to COVID-19, consumers are really looking for more natural heat-and-eat options, especially since big CPG suppliers were caught off guard last year and had issues meeting demand,” said Ayeshah Abuelhiga, founder and CEO of the Baltimore, Md.-based company. “This indicates strong consumer interest in heat-and-eat and we are still seeing empty shelves so that demand is going to linger.”

After all, consumers are seeking convenience more than ever. And even though COVID-19 had people working remotely, the lack of a commute but the need for a morning routine adds to the break-up of the monotony and so people are looking for café-at-home experiences.

“Rediscovering the ease of heat-and-eat products, especially at breakfast, is going to be important as kids go back to school and parents look for quick breakfast options as they juggle their return to work schedule and getting kids to school,” Abuelhiga said.

Marketing tips

One of the best ways for retailers to market heat-and-eat beef, is to communicate convenience, quality and versatility for meal preparation of all occasions.

“Heat-and-eat is a great solution for both the highly skilled home chef to develop a great meal and the less-skilled cook to provide healthy and tasty meals,” Flynn said. “To assist our retail partners in showcasing our heat-and-eat offerings, we offer traditional messaging methods, as well as social and digital. We provide in-store activation merchandising including shelf talkers and window clings that include a QR code to scan for recipe inspiration, digital coupons and brand storytelling. We have found simple recipes to customize and amplify heat-and-serve products perform exceptionally well with consumers.”

Niman Ranch differentiates its heat-and-serve offerings with messaging related to the company’s sustainable sourcing and artisanal preparation.

“From smoking our all beef Fearless Franks over real hardwood—never using liquid smoke or artificial ingredients—to preparing our shredded beef in small batches, Niman Ranch customers know that our heat-and-serve products are worthy of their dinner table,” Flynn said.

Some retailers are finding success be doing more on the café-at-home merchandising, pairing shelf-stable natural items near frozen heat-and-eat items to help build a culture of shopping by cart versus wandering in the frozen aisle for discovery.

“With Sadler’s Smokehouse products, we want to build awareness and motivate consumers to ‘Bring It On Home,’” Jacobson said. “We will be doing this through a variety of marketing mix tactics: in store merchandising, social media influencers, on-pack offers, mobile rebates and targeted digital messaging.”

Gold noted that Seasons displays the packaged heat-and-eat foods near items such as salads, soups and soufflés for great cross-merchandising opportunities.

“This allows everything in this category to be in one spot and allow the customer to come in quickly, grab what they need and get on with their day,” he said.

Retailers love that heat-and-eat products have an endless demographic—from families, to singles, to the on-the-go working individuals—the heat-and-eat meals are suited for everyone.