Frozen food is becoming an increasingly popular choice for the time-pressed caterer who wants reliable, nutritious meals that maintain their margins during hard times, reports Angela Frewin.
"Frozen foods are providing a valuable defence against the chill winds of austerity and the key role they can play in reducing costly food waste while streamlining service has not be en lost on commercial chefs," says Almondy managing director Andrew Ely.
The financial claw-back can be considerable say University of Salford scientists, who recently reported that the average UK pub could save up to £50,000 a year (or 21.5%) by using frozen ingredients in place of their fresh or chilled counterparts and even more - £115,000 or 49% - by using frozen ready-made meals.
"The nature of frozen allows caterers to provide a wide range of enticing dishes to encourage custom but also requires lower levels of skill to prepare and unused ingredients can be stored safely until they are needed rather than thrown away," explains Brian Young, director-general of the British Frozen Food Federation, which commissioned the Salford research. "Buying frozen saves money because of competitive and stable food prices, the ability to control portion sizes and wastage, reduce utilities use and the opportunity to cut labour costs.
And frozen does not sacrifice quality, hygiene or nutrition to convenience, adds Mohammed Essa, general manager UK and Ireland at Aviko: "Fresh foods begin to lose nutrients from the moment they are picked while quick-freezing locks in both the freshness and nutrients right up to the point of service."
He points to research by Sheffield Hallam University showing frozen to be as effective as fresh in providing 37 macro- and micro-nutrients. As 'fresh' foods can spend three to seven days in the supply chain - up to 14 days for fish - they are more vulnerable to the pathogens that quick-freezing inhibits.
Donna Rowbottom, marketing manager at potato supplier McCain Foodservice, emphasises the price buffer that frozen provides against unpredictable growing conditions: "The quality and cost of fresh potatoes can fluctuate according to seasonal variations, making budgets difficult to control particularly as this year's crop is reported to be the worst since 1967."
And the ability to source long-life frozen ingredients internationally adds vital security of supply in a resource-hungry world, adds Nigel Parkes, purchasing and marketing director at Atlantic Foods. "Demand from emerging markets such as China and India is growing rapidly and putting an enormous strain on supply chains so being able to rely on a supplier to have sufficient stock at all times is a vital aspect in the current marketplace," he explains.
Frozen also helps populate menus with a year-round variety of exotic as well as seasonal ingredients, says CP Foods, whose wide choice of ready-made Oriental meals allows operators who lack the culinary expertise meet the growing taste for ethnic cuisines such as Thai, Chinese and Japanese.
- "Caterers are increasingly looking for the 'real thing' and our dishes have that provenance, made using Asian ingredients, which are often hard to locate in the UK, to produce authentic and convenient dishes," said development manager Jane Dunford.
Bakery products freeze well and overcome the time, labour, consistency and (in large volumes) freshness drawbacks of their ambient counterparts, says Brakes independent marketing director James Armitage. The ability to defrost to demand fully-baked croissants and pastries that are ready to use in minutes has, he says, made Brakes' specialist bakery division La Boulangerie one of its most popular frozen offerings.
Similarly, Dawn Foods' line of pre-measured, weighted and mixed Scoop & Bake frozen batters and doughs can help caterers who lack the space, time or skills benefit from the aroma of fresh-baked muffins, cakes, traybakes, brownies and cookies, says marketing manager Jacqui Passmore. The mixes - recently doubled to 12 flavour options - can, she adds, easily be tweaked to capitalise on new trends.
Frozen food comes into its own in the high-volume, budget-straitened cost sector - most acutely in healthcare where caterers must also factor in nutrition and special dietary and ethnic requirements. Freezing technology plays a key role in Apetito's award-winning solution to the tricky complication of dysphagia (difficulty in swallowing) - a broad 3-step range of puréed to soft-chewable meals that are moulded and coloured to look as appetising as the real thing.
Apetito dietician Helen Blunn explained that the meals - which meet strict guidelines to avoid possibly fatal complications - took years of research to develop and would be extremely time consuming and challenging for catering staff to achieve: "For example we're able to prepare 33 texture-modified meals per minute, whereas to prepare the same number from scratch in an average kitchen would take around six hours."
Austerity has ushered in a 'subtle but significant shift' in customers' approach to innovation, reports Parkes at Atlantic: "It no longer revolves so much around the creation of brand new products, but more around different ways of presenting existing ones. For example, we produce a half roast chicken, but it's unlike a traditional product because we have removed a lot of the bone from it and it is therefore perceived by our customers as offering better value for money."
Stocking a variety of quick-cook frozen meals and snacks allows caterers to profit from fluctuating demand throughout the day, advises Ed Robinson, national account manager at Kepak Foodservice whose Big Al's line of flame-cooked burgers, chicken steaks and wings, pork ribsteaks and meatballs can, he adds, be adapted to multiple occasions.
Plusfood marketing manager Vera Malhotra agrees. Its Hot'n'Kickin' crispy chicken strips - now available with new internationally-flavoured coatings to meet the trend for ethnic tastes in sandwiches, salads and wraps - can be put to work, she says, as bar snacks and starters or used in combi platters, main meals and buffets.
Alternatively, notes Parkes, "Many operators are moving away from buying a whole range of different red and white meat SKUs choosing instead to consolidate their order by buying larger quantities of one item, thereby achieving a better price per unit." Using different sauces, dressings, glazes and seasonings provides diversity on the menu..
The recent meat contamination scandals have shaken consumer confidence in frozen ready meals and suppliers such as vegetarian ethnic snack specialist Daloon believe this will boost the already expanding vegetarian and meat reducer sector. Daloon has just diversified into frozen Western-style vegetarian staples such as Glamorgan sausage and vegetable and bean burgers to tap into a market that Keynote says grew in value by 17% between 2007 and 2011 and will grow another 10% by 2016.
Other operators are looking to ecolabels for traceability reassurance and the Marine Stewardship Council has noted a "huge growth" in the number of caterers seeking its Chain of Custody certification, which is backed by DNA testing for three key fish species.
While ethical issues have taken a back seat of late, Horizons forecasts that they will regain prominence in 2013. David Hanbury, whose Torquay fish and chip shop won MSC certification this year, agrees: "Customers are gradually starting to understand that the frozen-at-sea fish is good. They're keen to buy and support product that is sustainable."
ICE SHAVINGS - Cutting costs with frozen
University of Salford researchers found caterers could slash costs by using frozen ingredients and ready-made meals in place of their fresh or chilled counterparts. The weekly savings on a real pub's best-selling meals outlined below take in account the cost of ingredients, kitchen staff grades, food waste, energy and water, plus the impact of preparation, cooking and cleaning up. A fresh/chilled steak pie and chips took skilled staff 45 minutes to prepare and cook while the frozen ready-made version could be prepared by a junior member of staff in just 10 minutes.
Weekly Cost Difference Of Using Frozen Over Fresh/Chilled Food
|-||Frozen ingredients % saving||- Frozen ready-made meal % saving|
|- Steak Pie||- 15%||- 52%|
|- Burger & chips||- 10%||- 26%|
|- Fish & chips||- 39%||- 62%|
|- Hot Beef Sandwich||- 27%||- 36%|
|- Continental Chicken||- 9%||- 72%|
|- Roast Beef Dinner||- 26%||- 39%|
|- Lamb Shank||- 12%||- 32%|
|- Nut Loaf||- 0.06%||- 61%|
|- Rhubarb Crumble||- n/a||- 54%|
|- Prawn Cocktail||- 12%||- n/a|
Compared with fresh/chilled counterparts, frozen food can over a year:
•Slash overall costs by 15% (ingredients) and 36% (ready-made)
•Reduce kitchen staff costs by £58,809.26 or 32% (ingredients) to £122,382.32 or 67% (ready-made).
•Cut utility costs by 4.5% (ingredients) and 34% (ready-made)
FROST BITES -Handling frozen food safely
•Store below -18oC to inhibit any bacterial growth
•Defrost between 5oC and 10oC (ideally below 8oC) for no more than 48 hours before reheating to prevent the growth of pathogens such as Bacillus cereus that produce heat stable toxins.
•Reheating should achieve a core temperature of 70Â°C for two minutes to kill off bugs such as Listeria monocytogenes that can survive low temperatures.
•To refreeze, cool cooked foods at room temperature for around 30 minutes to two hours at room temperature before moving to fridge or freezer.
•Don't put very hot foods in fridges or freezers as this will prevent correct chilling - but aim to get large volumes to below 5oC within four hours.
•Never refreeze raw foods that have been frozen and defrosted.
Source: Susan Werro, the Society of Food Hygiene and Technology (www.sofht.co.uk)
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