Friday, June 8, 2012

Fresh & Easy - The Meal Store

Kitchen To Go line laid out

This week Raley's employees voted to go on strike. Contract discussions broke down because Raley's says they are struggling in a crowded grocery market and they need to make some hard cuts. That much is very true, the grocery market is becoming quite competitive. In just the last few years they have had to face even more competition as new groceries such as Sunflower and Fresh & Easy enter the fray. It's in times like these that the corporate home offices of such companies have to take a good, hard look at the marketplace. What is the marketplace like? Is it changing? Where do they fit in?

I got an interesting glimpse of that this week when I was invited to the U.S. headquarters of Fresh & Easy down in Los Angeles. They wanted to give bloggers a first peak at a new line of over 150 items that will debut next Wednesday - Kitchen To Go. Although tasting about 20 items was fun, what interested me the most is how they came to their decision to produce this line and what lengths they've gone to to do so.

The company has been doing a lot of market research looking at American eating habits and the role of food in our lives, families, and budget. Many of the things they repeated from their February kickoff event - millions of Americans don't know how to cook and even more don't think about what they are going to eat for dinner until an hour before or while they are cruising grocery aisle.

Enter the concept of the Meal Store and the Kitchen to Go product line. Talk about finding a niche in the grocery battlegrounds. Fresh & Easy wants to position themselves as a meal store where you can go in and put together a meal that is a better alternative than going through the drive-thru lane of the nearest fast food joint.

Kitchen to Go has four cuisines (American, Mexican, Italian, and Asian) broken down into bowls, appetizers, small entrees (2 people) to family entrees (4 people).  You can mix and match to your hearts content. You can also feel comfortable in knowing that Fresh & Easy never uses dyes or preservatives in their food. Each product is clearly labeled with serving size and calorie count per serving on the front. The prices range from $1.99 for a side on up to $9.99 for one of the more complex family entrees.

This led me to question production, transport, and shelf life. Fresh & Easy has a giant production facility in Riverside that has three sections - produce handling, meat handling, and the new kitchen facility for the production of all their meals. A store will send in an order of what they need. The produce and meat facilities send their items to the kitchens to produce the meals. The kitchen cooks fresh batches every day and then ships them out and within 24 hours you have the product on the shelves.



I will take an aside and mention, as I have in past posts, that my ex-husband actually sells the sanitizing, manufacturing equipment/machinery to Fresh & Easy . He told me that their kitchens are the cleanest, most sterile facilities he's ever seen, even beating out pharmaceutical companies. That's pretty impressive.

As I have a new interest in food waste this year, I asked what happens if it doesn't sell. The shelf live is about five days. As the item approaches the end of its shelf life it is moved to the marked down area of the store, so you could save some money there. They also said that each Fresh & Easy store works closely with its local food bank and so much of the food will also end there.

Of course changing to The Meal Store doesn't mean that it's no longer a grocery store or that all you can buy is the pre-made foods. For those who do enjoy cooking but can't be bothered with recipes or complexity, they still put together meal ideas for you. I was talking to someone who told me they really enjoy the weekly circulars they get in the mail/paper because Fresh & Easy lays out an entire meal idea with all the elements (shopping list) and even breaks down the price per serving and how long it takes to prepare. Here is a meal plan/shopping example. 

There is still no Fresh & Easy that is near me and yet as a single person who's gotten pretty lazy about cooking over the last year, all of these ideas do appeal to me somewhat. As I was told by my friend yesterday, it would certainly appeal to seniors as well as any busy mom on the go.


OK, so how did it taste?  There were hits and misses. I was not a fan of the Mexican line. Considering that Fresh & Easy is only in Southwestern states, I'd say they need to really step it up on those items. The beef nachos I found tasted too much like those packaged taco seasoning mixes.

On the other hand, the Italian line was a hit. The garlic shrimp was everyone's favorite - bright, flavorful, not overly garlicy. The flatbread was simple and nice without being stale. I didn't see the need for 10 cheeses in the 10 Cheese Ravioli, but as cheese ravioli go, they were good.

The Asian items were 50/50. The Kung Pao Chicken had serious heat and will be too hot for those who can't do spicy. The potsticker was like any others out there.

The American line was 50/50 too. You'll be pleasantly surprised at how good the Texas Blueberry BBQ is. If you like potato skins, then you'll be all over the pulled pork topped version they sell. The mac n cheese, though, was flat, boring, and not creamy enough.

The plan is to change items seasonally so that they are using produce that is at its peak. For instance, it wouldn't make sense to have their caprese salad in December when tomatoes are not in season. The rotation will also keeps things fresh and different.

If you are one of those millions that doesn't have the time or skills to put together a meal but would like to get away from a constant fast food diet, be sure to check out Kitchen To Go when it debuts on Wednesday.

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