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Giving frozen food a high-end makeover

Montreal's Cool & Simple is turning the frozen aisle into an upscale HMR store

The idea is simple. A small store–1,500 square feet or less–with hardly any decor, costing under $200,000 to open and equip. Inside, several rows of freezers are filled with frozen food.

But instead of TV dinners, Cool & Simple sells gourmet frozen dishes, course by course. There’s Veal Blanquette with Rice, Lamb Hash à la Parmentier, and Cassoulet, a hardy single-serve bowl of brown beans cooked with vegetables, duck confit, smoked bacon and sausage.

The portions aren’t just fancy sounding, they’re larger than most frozen dishes: 325 grams for a main course as opposed to, say, 238 grams for a Lean Cuisine entrée. Of course, the flavour is touted as superior, too.

If you haven’t heard of Cool & Simple, look it up. The first store opened in Montreal in March 2010. Now, three shops do business within the city, in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, Griffintown and Île-des-Soeurs, and a fourth is on the way near the downtown. Company president Vincent Mahé says he’d like to take the concept to Toronto within three years.

What’s special about Cool & Simple?

First, it’s at the cutting edge of frozen food retailing in North America. Most people assume frozen’s popularity is declining as consumers seek out more fresh and healthy fare. But frozen may actually be surging as a whole new generation of better-for-you frozen food hits the market.

“It’s a question of education,” says Mahé, 45. “People equate frozen food with cheap and salty and fat. It doesn’t have to be.” Mahé sees opportunity in consumers’ seemingly unquenchable thirst for higher quality, more nutritious, more adventurous food that is also quick and easy to prepare.

Another reason to watch Cool & Simple: The retailer isn’t taking cues from North American freezer aisles. It’s borrowing from Europe, where higher-end frozen meals are popular and chains that sell only food from the freezer have existed for many years.

When you walk into a Cool & Simple store, you’re led down an aisle of appetizers to the main courses, followed by desserts. The store is sparse, employs few (10 across all stores) and overhead is bare-bones.

Cool & Simple hires no chefs, owns no kitchens and does little advertising. It depends on publicity, the Internet and word-of-mouth to spread the gospel of its menu of about 300 dishes.

The company’s products come from a range of sources, including Mahé’s own wholesale company, Gastronomica in Montreal. Items are imported from Europe. Packages of D’aucy brand extra fine green beans, for instance, are made by CECAB Co-operative Group in Brittany, France.

Mahé describes the typical Cool & Simple customer as a “white collar” professional. She might live alone or have a small family. The average entrée costs about $10, though a veal osso buco goes for $16.95 and a confit of suckling piglet that feeds four to six sells for $85.

The average sale is between $40 and $50, Mahé says. “Some people buy their whole week’s food here, spending $300 or $400,” he adds.

Cool & Simple was inspired by Picard, a French frozen food chain with 800 stores in France and Italy, says Mahé. According to Picard’s website, the French market for frozen foods has increased by more than 44 per cent to 1.1 billion Euros since 2004.

The appetite for frozen fare is also strong across the English channel. A recent survey by British grocer Sainsbury’s found over 20 per cent of shoppers were buying more frozen foods. Last September, the U.K.’s largest supermarket chain, Tesco, broadened its frozen line of cottage pie and other ready-made-meals to include Jamaican jerk chicken, Thai red curry and paella.

A Tesco spokesperson said these have proven popular with customers. So has another trend: frozen food that requires more than the press of a microwave button. Some Tesco meals now call for a customer to heat up product in a wok, for example, giving the impression that the dish was at least partially cooked from scratch.

Here in North America, retailers are also seeing growth in frozen food.

Montreal-based supermarket chain Metro says its frozen sales are stable, except in pizzas, sales of which are growing steadily in all supermarkets. Last fall, Whole Foods launched 70 exclusive brand frozen products, succinctly described by co-CEO Walter Robb as “successful.”

Costco’s assistant vice-president of food and sundries for Eastern Canada, Marc-André Bally, says frozen food has jumped 10 to 15 per cent per year the last three years. The numbers include frozen fish but also meals like chicken nuggets, Asian-style soup with dumplings, ravioli, tortellini and chicken pot pies.

“The challenge is to offer a product that is good for you,” Bally says, and the chain has been working to reduce sodium and fat in its frozen foods.

Phil Lempert, the American grocery industry journalist known as the Supermarket Guru, is familiar with the hot and cold of the frozen category. About a year ago he was quoted in a speech saying that the frozen food section of the average supermarket would shrink to about one-third its current size.

However, earlier this year he predicted an “evolution” of frozen foods. Shoppers, he said, are beginning to understand that vegetables and fruit that have been flash frozen are more nutritious than fresh produce.

Lempert also cited convenience as a factor in the resurgence of the frozen category. Consumers, he says, don’t have time to spend preparing dinner in the kitchen and, in fact, the number of made-from-scratch meals in the U.S. has fallen drastically, to 59 per cent in 2011 from 72 per cent in 1984.

“A store specializing in frozen food is very smart,” says Lempert. “There’s a huge push toward frozen and there’s a huge increase in quality.”

Lempert says young shoppers in particular today are looking for new culinary adventures, but don’t have the pockets for fine restaurants. So many are gravitating toward exotic frozen that costs appreciably less than a table for two at an upscale eatery.

Also, more people of every age are living alone. For these people, quality frozen food is a simple alternative to shopping, cooking and cleaning up for one.

Lempert says people realize some meats are previously frozen and most fish and seafood has been frozen at sea or sitting on ice for a long time and then thawed and sold. “So why not buy something still frozen and thaw it yourself,” he says.

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