The secret's in the sauce

Thanks to globally-inspired flavours and “free-from” innovations, consumers are gobbling up ready-made sauces

As you stroll through Stong’s Market in Vancouver, you’re not likely to miss the ever-expanding selection of ready-made cooking sauces featuring interesting international flavours and new “free-from” recipes. Stong’s isn’t unique in this respect: whether it’s an Indian-inspired, gluten-free tikka masala sauce sweetened with dates, a vegan Italian-style alfredo sauce using a cashew nut base, or a Middle Eastern lahmajoun pizza sauce, grocers across Canada are giving more and more shelf space to unique ready-made cooking sauces.

Recent consumer data from Nielsen shows that baking and cooking sauce sales were up 5% over last year in Canada, accounting for nearly $76 million in sales, while pasta sauce sales grew by 2% to reach nearly $292 million. According to Carson Bonina, manager at Stong’s Market, this growth isn’t surprising. “The demand for convenient, ready-made food has been on the rise for several years now,” says Bonina, adding that ready-made cooking sauces are no exception.

Today’s globally-inspired, made-from-scratch-style sauces enable consumers “to purchase exotic and healthy sauces, and still be able to cook and finish the meal themselves,” adds Bonina. “These customers are often short on time, but still want to try new and exotic dishes.”

According to Isabel Morales, manager of consumer insights at Nielsen, when it comes to ready-made cooking sauces, “There are more bold flavour combinations at the store level.” Many of these are international in origin, she says, the most popular ready-made sauces today being inspired by Thai, Indian, Middle Eastern and Caribbean dishes.

Tebbie Chuchla, head of marketing at Conagra Brands, says Canadian consumers are now seeking unexpected and ethnic flavours. “Consumers are moving toward more gourmet and multicultural flavours. In fact, 74% of Canadians like to experience other cultures through food and 72% believe flavour and spice-inspired meals help break the monotony of meal time,” she says. To meet this need, Conagra has created its new VH Fusion Flavours line, which marries sweet with spicy through offerings such as Honey Sriracha and Pineapple Jerk.

Morales believes Canada’s changing cultural landscape is driving the growing popularity of bold-flavoured cooking sauces. “Millennials are a generation more ethnically diverse than ever before in Canada. As they continue to grow their spending power and become heads of households, they are looking for, and purchasing, a wider variety of flavours,” she says.

This all sets the stage for food companies like Toronto’s Saha International Cuisine—the manufacturer of the earlier- mentioned Middle Eastern lahmajoun pizza base marinade as well as other globally-inspired ready-made cooking sauces—to see demand for its products growing. Launched in 2010 by Rahul Jain and chef Robert Heidenreich, Saha was founded to give Canadian consumers a taste of the most celebrated street foods from around the globe. Today, the company offers about a dozen varieties of Caribbean, Thai and Middle Eastern curries, marinades and cooking sauces.

Jain and Heidenreich are not only on trend flavour-wise, but they also hit on an important trend with their ingredients: all of their ready-made cooking sauces are free from gluten, artificial ingredients/flavours, additives, preservatives and saturated fats.

The “free-from” focus of many of today’s ready-made sauce lines is no doubt playing a big role in the success of these products. Canadian consumers are more health conscious and ingredient savvy than ever, eager for clean foods made from simple ingredients. Jain says today’s consumers “rightfully demand high-quality products that deliver great taste, variety and health, and are compatible with their dietary choices, personal beliefs and lifestyles.”

Mississauga, Ont.-based Good Food for Good offers a similar combo of international flavours and a focus on clean ingredients. Founder Richa Gupta was inspired to start her sauce company out of a desire for great-tasting cooking sauces that were both healthy and convenient. Her sauces—which use mostly organic ingredients and have no added sugar or preservatives—include ready-made butter chicken, tikka masala, coconut curry, and Mexican taco and enchilada sauces.

Gupta notes that many traditional packaged sauces “have almost the same amount of sugar as a handful of candy per serving,” so she uses natural sweeteners such as dates for her products. “The new wave is all about no-compromise convenience, where consumers are not expected to give up quality for flavour.”

Kailey Gilchrist, founder and owner of Nona Vegan—a Toronto-based sauce company that offers dairy-free, vegan cream-style Italian cooking sauces in Alfredo, Carbonara and Cheesy flavours—says consumers are “frequently searching for ‘free-from’ labels in order to make a meal suiting everyone’s dietary restrictions.” Created using a cashew nut base, Nona Vegan sauces have won multiple awards including the Best of Fest Award at the Toronto Mac and Cheese Festival and the Favourite Artisanal Product from the Toronto Vegetarian Association Awards. “Folks want their loved ones to be able to enjoy delicious food regardless of their dietary preferences,” she says.

Some grocers are even investing in their own sauce lines. Brad McMullen, president and co-owner of Toronto’s Summerhill Market, says his store has been creating its own cooking sauces in-store for some time now. “The main consideration is offering variety and taste using fresh ingredients.” For an independent, he says, “it’s a lot of effort to create, test and maintain consistency,” but it is worth it, as sauce sales directly relate to meat sales at Summerhill.

Indeed, cross-merchandising is key to effectively promoting and selling ready-made cooking sauces, so it’s important to ensure sauces are displayed close to the foods they’re meant to accompany. In-store sampling is another huge way to boost sauce sales. “By giving customers samples, you take the fear out of the possibility that they will purchase something they do not like,” says Bonina.

Nona Vegan’s Gilchrist, who often partners with grocers to offset costs associated with sampling, adds that by offering a sampling station near the products, you create a footpath to the products themselves. “Customers get to see where our sauces live in store as well as why they live there. People love to know that it’s a fresh product.”

This new generation of ready-made cooking sauces can offer exciting globally inspired flavours, high-quality, clean ingredients and the convenience of not having to make sauces from scratch. Is it any wonder today’s multicultural, health-savvy, busy Canadian consumers are gobbling them up? Perhaps it’s time for Canadian grocers to get saucy and invest more space, time, and resources into their ready-made cooking sauce stock and sales strategies.