The pressures of urban life are making ready-to-eat meals the food of choice for an increasing number of people; they cater to popular tastes, are cheaper, hygienic and simply convenient
Unlike many countries, Thailand is a paradise for fresh cooked food. Hot, made-to-order meals are available everywhere, 24 hours a day, with vendors just a few steps from your home. However, consumer behaviour is gradually changing.
Those living in an urban society want something quicker than having to walk out and wait to order food. Instead, they stock up on their favourite dishes – ready-to-eat (RTE) frozen meals – and reheat them. In just a few minutes, they are ready to eat.
Preserved foods used to be considered as meant for emergency situations like the flood disaster last year. Besides, eating preserved food is perhaps not the right choice from the viewpoint of health. However, advanced technology that improves food quality and brings the taste closer to the fresh-cooked original, marketing campaigns, tasting activities and brochures explaining the RTE manufacturing process have helped to break the negative image of frozen food.
Anurat Khokasai, chief marketing officer and chief operating officer of Union Frozen Products Co, which makes Prantalay-brand seafood products, said recently that he did some research eight years ago and found that only 3 per cent wanted to try frozen food. But now everyone knows what frozen RTE food is and more than 90 per cent have tried it.
“We buy it to stock in the fridge, take it out for lunch instead of lining up to order cooked food at shops or restaurants,” he said.
Bt6 billion-Bt8 billion market
Now the market is worth Bt6 billion-Bt8 billion with more players jumping in and new dishes being released every month, ranging from rice dishes and dim sum to snacks and processed fruit like roasted bananas with sweet paste.
“Now urban dwellers consume at least one RTE meal a day. I hope it will be increased to two meals a day,” says Suphat Sritanatorn, senior vice president for the modern trade business at CPF Trading, which accounts for 25 per cent of the RTE market with products distributed at its own convenience stores like 7-Eleven and CP Fresh Mart.
Prantalay’s Anurat estimates that everyone eats an RTE meal at least once a week.
“If we open the fridge at any house, I think we’ll definitely see an RTE meal in it. It’s very common nowadays to store one or more RTE packs just in case,” he says.
Suphat said RTE meals are gaining popularity due to the evolving lifestyles. People are moving into high-rise condominiums, where it is inconvenient for them to cook. Stocking up on frozen RTE meals is an option when hunger strikes.
“The basic kitchen appliances in a family are a refrigerator, microwave oven and baking oven and that trend dictates product release as well,” he said.
“A lot of young people don’t cook and RTE meals are convenient and have more nutritional value than instant noodles. When you are hungry, you can just warm them in the microwave for a few seconds,” Anurat said.
Suphat’s research showed that spending by urban people on RTE food was the highest in the evening and late nights on weekdays when people are tired after work and traffic jams. They just need something to quickly fill their stomach and then go to bed.
RTE menus are influenced by what people like ordering when they go to cooked-to-order shops, like the popular Thai dish khao pad krapao moo sap (stir-fried minced pork and Thai sweet basil on rice) and khao khai jiaw koong sap (Thai-style omelette with minced shrimp on rice).
These single dishes are transformed into RTE meals with portions ranging from 200-400 grams. Prices vary from Bt29-Bt55 or can go up to Bt80-Bt120 for larger portions. International favourites are also available, including spaghetti carbonara, chicken rice, shrimp wonton with egg noodle soup and vegetarian dishes.
“Customers will care for the taste and price. If it’s aroy [delicious] and the price is reasonable, they pay for it even though sometimes it’s more expensive,” Suphat said.
Though the dish that people think is popular is khao pad krapao, Charoen Pokphand Food’s bestsellers are spaghetti carbonara and shrimp wonton. These are special dishes that you can’t get from any cooked-to-order shop. The wontons are made with whole shrimp, not minced shrimp, and spaghetti carbonara costs in the hundreds of baht in an Italian restaurant, not Bt70 like this RTE meal.
Prantalay offers other options to rice with seafood dishes like rice soup with grouper fish and shrimp, which turned out to be the brand’s top-selling product.
Packaging and food presentation also influence the customer’s buying decision as much as the price and portion.
“Thais are very fussy when it comes to food. So we keep doing research and improve the products all the time,” Suphat said.
“But snack food sales are much higher than main dishes with rice because they can be eaten anytime like for kids when they get back from school or when we party with friends,” he said.
Though people are depending more on RTE meals, RTE cannot defeat cooked-to-order shops, which can provide more variety and flavours. The freezing process also affects the ingredient structure and taste. Green vegetables lose their bright colours and sharp flavours, while fried meat products still have a problem in maintaining their crispiness.
“There’s technology to do that but it will increase the product’s cost. It will be like discovering a gold mine if any company can get it right,” he said.
“My ideal product is an RTE meal that can stay fresh at room temperature, no refrigeration required,” Anurat said.
Many Thai foods have chilli as the key ingredient to make them hot and spicy. However what they found is a lack of consistency of its spices even though they are from the same tree.
Booming domestic sales
Though the RTE meal market is booming, sales are only domestic, not international. While the
government is trying to promote the “Thai Kitchen of the World” project, RTE food will probably find it easier to reach customers than Thai restaurants. The flavour and quality are proven because of mass production, while purchases will be cheaper than going out to eat at a Thai restaurant.
CPF has already successfully exported whole shrimp wonton
to US supermarkets and stores worldwide, but it’s not easy because of the complicated
procedures. Before getting approval to place the product on foreign supermarket shelves, the supplier needs to make preparations. They then face check-ups from partners, not to speak of embargoes on some meat products in some countries.
“If we get support from the government and work together, RTE meals are a lot easier to boost sales of Thai food to the world market,” Suphat added.