Further research reveals promising news for smaller frozen food producers who jockey for freezer space with nationally recognized companies. According to a study the American Frozen Food Institute released in April, 68 percent of shoppers have been trying new brands.
“Our sales have really picked up since the pandemic,” says Z&Z co-founder Danny Dubbaneh. In November 2019, he and his brother Johnny started selling a frozen version of the za’atar-sprinkled Middle Eastern flatbreads they first introduced to D.C. residents at area farmers markets.
The brothers decided to dabble in frozen food because they saw potential to meet the demand of customers craving fresh, natural foods. Shelf-stable products, by comparison, require more additives and preservatives. Z&Z’s za’atar manoushe is vegan, contains six ingredients, and is ready to eat after five minutes in the oven. Dubbaneh calls his product a “blank canvas” and recommends piling on toppings like cheese, prosciutto, and hot honey.
“In the early days of the pandemic, people were shopping like crazy,” Dubbaneh says. “Grocers were struggling to get stuff on the shelves. We reached out to all of our partners and said, ‘Hey, we’re local! If you’re struggling, we can be there in a day.’ We reached out to Glen’s Garden Market. That catapulted our growth with them.”
But are recently skyrocketing sales enough of an indicator that frozen food is an easier, less risky entry point into the food world? Dubbaneh says the consumer packaged goods category is generally thought of “as a beast you want to stay away from.” Space is limited in both supermarket freezers and freezers in consumers’ homes, making frozen food extremely competitive.
Like Dubbaneh, she doesn’t use any preservatives or additives. “We’re moving away from frozen meaning bad, bad quality, and bad for you,” she says. “Meat, vegetables, and a starch. Done!” Chicken and vegetable is her most popular variety.
When she started her business, she sought to get her empanadas in front of as many people as possible and determined the freezer route was the best approach. “With catering or a restaurant, you can only reach so many,” she says. “The footprint is small. With frozen, you can reach the whole country.”
In D.C., frozen food entrepreneurs typically start out producing and packaging in food incubators like Union Kitchen, Mess Hall, and Tastemakers. Because renting shared space and equipment comes with fewer overhead costs than finding and paying for a private commercial kitchen, incubators give startups leeway for trial and error.
“Your product is likely to evolve until you find the perfect market fit,” Womack says. Her advice is to “start small and stay small” until you’re satisfied. “Work with a few places to understand who your customer is and what they’re looking for,” she says.
Once you’ve perfected your frozen product and are ready to scale up, Womack says you come to a fork in the road: Do you shell out for a private kitchen or outsource manufacturing to a co-packing facility? After launching at Union Kitchen, Womack found a 3,000-square-foot kitchen in Rockville in July 2019 that’s all hers.
Swapples founder Rebecca Peress took the opposite path. After operating out of Union Kitchen for two and a half years, she found a co-packer to produce her frozen waffles made from yuca root. The most popular flavor is blueberry, but there are also savory options. Peress recommends the everything-flavored waffle as an alternative base for avocado toast.
Peress agrees with Womack that you need to build in time and money for testing all aspects of the product. For Swapples, packaging was the toughest piece to nail. When Swapples hit freezer aisles in 2016, they came in a bag. “I was trying to be as economical as possible as a boot-strapped owner,” Peress says. Because frozen waffles typically come in a box, “when people saw the bag, they thought it was a mix. We’re now on our fifth generation of packaging.”
The key to creating a successful product is striking a balance between blending in enough for consumers to recognize her product as a waffle while also maintaining a competitive advantage by standing out as something novel. “In the freezer, if you get it in, someone’s getting kicked out,” she explains. “Fighting to stay in there is really hard.”
Her advice is to develop something unique, even though standing out hurt Swapples during COVID-19. Peress says she saw a “huge decline” in retail sales, partially because her product costs $7.99 for a box of four waffles. “Anyone who is cash-strapped won’t buy them,” she says. “Then think of people who transitioned to online shopping. You have far less visibility there. You’re not walking around and browsing … You’re going to a search bar and typing in what you normally get.”
Fortunately, direct-to-consumer sales from the Swapples website made up for any retail losses. Fellow frozen food entrepreneur Karen Hoefener of Nomad Dumplings had a similar experience. “E-commerce and email orders increased by 400 percent,” she says. “They weren’t even part of the business plan!”
Hoefener launched her healthy frozen dumpling line out of Mess Hall in 2017 and is still producing there today. She learned the art of dumpling making from chefs and coworkers while living and working in China. She adds her twist by using vegetables and spices to dye the potsticker wrappers, giving each flavor a different hue. “I’d been making and freezing dumplings for more than a decade,” Hoefener says. “I just had to make some alterations to do it more at scale.”
Figuring out her price point has been the biggest challenge. “Do as much research as possible to understand the costs associated with this,” Hoefener says. “My least favorite thing about our brand is our price. I was hoping to be $5. I can’t stand being $9.95.”
Price becomes even more make-or-break when you’re bringing a frozen product to market in a saturated category like pizza or mac and cheese. “Fairly frequently, a local product goes into the market and gets onto the shelf at a price twice the standard of that category,” says Eat Pizza founder Andy Brown. “Unlike restaurants, shipping and grocery markups are a big factor. In order to be an accessible $7.99, we have to sell [to stores] for almost half that.”
Brown started out making pizzas in his Dupont Circle apartment for friends to try. He stacked a commercial oven on top of a speaker. “There was no ventilation and it definitely was super unsafe, but I held pizza nights every Monday,” he told City Paper in 2017, when his frozen pizza line launched. Now he has three brick-and-mortar restaurants in the region and a few pop-ups.
“If you thought restaurants were hard, frozen food is even harder,” Brown says. “The margins are razor thin and everyone you’re competing with is a giant.” His frozen pies feature hand-tossed, fermented dough made by cooks, not machines. “I have the best cheese, best tomatoes, and we pick our basil fresh,” he adds. “That’s a hard margin to work on.”
Eat Pizza comes in three flavors: Classic margherita, three cheese, and wild mushroom. “We say it on the box, but the hotter your oven is, the better your pizza is going to taste,” Brown advises. “We talk to grocery buyers all the time. They’ll say, ‘It was really dry.’ If they cooked it at 325 degrees for 22 minutes, then you made crackers, you didn’t make pizza.”
Brown says he’s doing seven times Eat Pizza’s typical sales volume during the pandemic. They’ve been shipping a full trailer of frozen pies from their production facility in Baltimore to stores every 36 hours. While Andy’s Pizza locations were closed for dine-in service before the District began phased reopening, Brown was able to employ some laid off restaurant workers as frozen pizza makers to meet demand.
Frozen mac and cheese company 8 Myles also caught a break during the pandemic. “We’ve been a hot commodity,” says founder Myles Powell. He’s an engineer by trade and works as a project manager for a construction company while simultaneously growing his brand. “We saw a pretty big uptick in sales, more media coverage, and have been in talks with a big-time, global retailer. That discussion wouldn’t have happened if not for COVID.”
Powell initially launched 8 Myles as a sauce line in Pennsylvania, but rebranded with Union Kitchen in D.C. in 2018. Three flavors are currently available—three cheese homestyle mac, Buffalo, and barbecue—and he’s about to roll out mac and cheese bites that can be baked in the oven or fried. Whatever leftovers are hanging around in your fridge make an ideal topping for Powell’s product. “You can put anything on top of mac and cheese and it’ll be great,” he says.
The biggest battle for 8 Myles is brand recognition in a crowd of mac and cheese options, especially because shoppers tend to settle into what’s familiar. “If someone comes out with a new potato chip, it’s unlikely I’ll try it because I have my favorite brand,” Powell says. “Or, I’ve used Bounty paper towels my whole life. That’s my brand now.”
Finding a way to catch customers’ attention is critical. “Know the other players in the market,” Powell says. “Look [at] what they’re doing right and wrong and capitalize on it.”
How about promoting that the product is made in D.C.? Washingtonians seemingly live to buy local—shouldn’t that love expand to the freezer aisle? “People get warm and cozy about buying local once,” Powell says. “If they don’t think it’s worth the price, they won’t buy it.”
Where to Buy
Balducci’s, Dawson’s Market, Glen’s Garden Market, Roland’s of Capitol Hill, Streets Market, Union Kitchen Grocery, Whole Foods, Yes! Organic Market
Dawson’s Market, Glen’s Garden Market, MOM’s Organic Market, Streets Market, Union Kitchen Grocery, Whole Foods, Yes! Organic Market
Dent Place Market, Glen’s Garden Market, MOM’s Organic Market, Odd Provisions, Streets Market, Rodman’s, Takoma Park Coop, Union Kitchen Grocery, Whole Foods,
Good Food Markets, Glen’s Garden Market, MOM’s Organic Market, Odd Provisions, Old City Market and Oven, Washington’s Green Grocer, Whole Foods (H Street NE)
Glen’s Garden Market, MOM’s Organic Market, Odd Provisions, Streets Market, Union Kitchen Grocery, Whole Foods, Yes! Organic Market
Dawson’s Market, Each Peach Market, Glen’s Garden Market, Odd Provisions