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Big Interview: Chris Licata, CEO of Blake's All Natural Foods

‘Natural’ the bright spot in recovering frozen aisle, says Blake’s All Natural boss

By Maggie Hennessy , 30-Jul-2014
Last updated on 30-Jul-2014 at 17:19 GMT

Chris Licata, on Blake's top-selling chicken pot pie: “People have long been buying mass produced pot pies with tons of ingredients you would sooner find in a lab than a kitchen. By having a cleaner version of it, we’re giving them the opportunity to indulge a little with classic comfort food, but with better ingredients and half the sodium and calories.”
Chris Licata, on Blake's top-selling chicken pot pie: “People have long been buying mass produced pot pies with tons of ingredients you would sooner find in a lab than a kitchen. By having a cleaner version of it, we’re giving them the opportunity to indulge a little with classic comfort food, but with better ingredients and half the sodium and calories.”

The success of the frozen section hinges on the continued trend toward prepared meals with cleaner ingredient decks and accessible price points, says Chris Licata, CEO of natural and organic frozen meals line Blake’s All Natural Foods.

Driven in part by a growing expectation of quality born out of premium frozen foods in the natural channel, the category is undergoing a revival, though affordability will always be a key part of the freezer aisle, Licata told FoodNavigator-USA.

“I do think that it’s important that whatever being sold in frozen there’s a need for products at different price points for sure. But there’s a trend towards more and more better-for-you options that represents the greatest opportunity for the frozen category to succeed,” Licata said. “I’m optimistic that the frozen department is capable of a bright future. Premium brands and the ones more focused on the better-for-you set are winning, and legacy brands are starting to experience some pressure as a result.”

The Concord, NH-based fourth-generation frozen prepared meals manufacturer produces dual lines of natural and 70 to 100% certified organic meals. Many of its formulas are based on family recipes for comfort food dishes such as chicken pot pie, shepherd’s pie and macaroni and cheese, which date back to the family’s farming roots in the 1920s.

All natural an ‘upgrade’ from conventional

Blake’s foundation was built on its natural meals line, and it remains its best seller based on sheer volume—as it’s sold in both conventional and natural channels. But as it got its start in the natural foods channel and aims to maintain a strong presence there, organic has become a key part of its strategy.

“The natural channel is a very important part of our business,” Licata said. “That sort of created a halo for our brand and company. We have products we sell specifically into natural foods stores and co-ops, but we also offer the natural meals for conventional channels, including grocery, mass, and at some point club stores.

“Our channel management strategy is to offer the highest quality organic meals for consumers who are willing to pay the premium and understand the benefits of organics. But we also offer meals that are of the highest quality and all natural at a more accessible price point.”

While Licata recognizes the confusion surrounding the concept of “natural”, Blake’s uses the term to denote meals free of antibiotics, artificial ingredients and animal byproducts—in other words, key attributes for consumers committing to eating better, whether that’s through the protein they consume or other ingredients, he said.

“It allows us to give consumers an option for high-quality food that may be an upgrade from conventional products they’re buying now that are produced without care that a smaller company can put into it.”

Accessibility not just about the price point

Blake’s natural line comes at a premium of typically around 10% compared to conventional food brands—an increase that Licata says still makes for a fairly easy trade-up, given the accessibility of the dishes.

Chris Licata

“Our focus is always on making food as accessible as possible, not only from a cost standpoint,” he said. “We’re never going to be over-epicurean. All of our dishes are ones consumers remember and love from childhood, though they might offer a slight twist.”

Not only that, but consumers who aren’t necessarily willing to give up their chicken pot pie dinner for a salad can still benefit from a cleaner product, he added.

“People have long been buying mass produced pot pies with tons of ingredients you would sooner find in a lab than a kitchen. By having a cleaner version of it, we’re giving them the opportunity to indulge a little with classic comfort food, but with better ingredients and half the sodium and calories.”

Indeed, as smaller companies can’t rely on the name recognition, heavy ad spending or slotting fees big legacy brands do to get the best visibility on the shelf, their biggest differentiating factor often has to be the quality of their food, Licata says, adding that Blake’s has grown based on repeat purchases. “We’re able to compete based on fact that I believe people want to know where food comes from, and they want to know they’re buying from a trusted source.”

Consumers already voting for better-for-you frozen with dollars

The move by big legacy brands to clean up their labels and reduce sodium and calories means consumers are already voting for the better-for-you frozen meals with their dollars, he added.

“The fact that natural is a bright spot in frozen is not just a trend. I think it is going to be long-term opportunity for growth, with more and more Americans realizing how important a role food can play in their health and that of their families. The more we can do to communicate benefits of eating a healthier diet made with real ingredients, the faster the category is going to grow,” he said.

The other piece helping the category along (that never really went away)? The fact that consumers and their families are increasingly time-strapped. Indeed, Licata sees great potential going forward for its family-size natural and organic meal lines, which launched the company into the frozen category in the 1970s, but are currently only available in the Northeastern market.

“Single serve still seems to meet the biggest need right now, but we think the family size is coming back. We want to make sure there are options for busy families as well,” he said.

Frozen food provides a great solution for so many people. The category will continue to thrive, but it also has to be willing to keep changing.”

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