The convenience food business: “Everyone talks about sustainability, but no one is ready to pay the price” – Companies

“There is a lack of knowledge about our sector, blows the association of ready meals in Belgium. We still have a bad reputation. However, our products are no less healthy than those we make at home.” Trends-Tendances opened the doors to Frigilunch, a company that offers its dishes in trays, available on supermarket shelves, that heat up in minutes.

Carbonader, chicken in sauce, meatballs in tomato sauce, etc. Behind these dishes in trays available via supermarkets or catering, we find the company Frigilunch in particular, a well-known name in the world of ready meals. In one of the buildings that follow each other, in the middle of a zone not very far from the North Sea, more precisely in Veurne, the workers are busy preparing thousands of meals prepared with the utmost care. When you pass the entrance, however, it is impossible to guess that huge kitchens are hidden behind the walls. The company offers itself to the visitor in the classic way: a reception, HR offices, a marketing post… and no smell of stews. Walking around the building and after crossing the parking lot where many cars with French license plates are parked (our neighbors make up 60% of the employees), we see the shadow workers, “those who make the quality of the product”, clarifies Anthony Botelberge, managing director director of Frigilunch. Apron, cap on hair and boots… The attire of the employees in the kitchen is the same for everyone. Even for visitors. “It’s a whole procedure to be able to get in,” warns the production manager. No stray objects enter the building and hygiene rules are strictly adhered to. Hands must be washed, dried and disinfected before passing the control of a machine that allows or does not allow access. “We work with food, you understand…”

Carbonader, chicken in sauce, meatballs in tomato sauce, etc. Behind these dishes in trays available via supermarkets or catering, we find the company Frigilunch in particular, a well-known name in the world of ready meals. In one of the buildings that follow each other, in the middle of a zone not very far from the North Sea, more precisely in Veurne, the workers are busy preparing thousands of meals prepared with the utmost care. When you pass the entrance, however, it is impossible to guess that huge kitchens are hidden behind the walls. The company offers itself to the visitor in the classic way: a reception, HR offices, a marketing post… and no smell of stews. Walking around the building and after crossing the parking lot where many cars with French license plates are parked (our neighbors make up 60% of the employees), we see the shadow workers, “those who make the quality of the product”, clarifies Anthony Botelberge, managing director director of Frigilunch. Apron, cap on hair and boots… The attire of the employees in the kitchen is the same for everyone. Even for visitors. “It’s a whole procedure to be able to get in,” warns the production manager. No stray objects enter the building and hygiene rules are strictly adhered to. Hands must be washed, dried and disinfected before passing the control of a machine that allows or does not allow access. “We work with food, you understand…” Behind the huge hallways with impressively high ceilings, a hundred workers are preparing the dishes. The kitchens open at three in the morning to start cooking and making sauces. A schedule that allows meals to be packed into trays very early in the morning for quick delivery to distribution centers. In the storage rooms, many packages are piled up on top of each other. Some foods can be stored longer than others and have a privileged place in the room, such as spices, the smell of which can be felt through the bags. In the cooking rooms, the noise from the machines contributes to the conversations. The ovens are cleaned automatically, jets of water appear behind the wall. “All machines are washed after use,” adds the production manager. Today it’s vegetarian lasagna and chicken with mushroom sauce. Two production lines are in operation for preparation. Detailed recipes are on the work plan. Dosage, temperature and nutritional value, it’s all there. “In Belgium, ready meals have a bad reputation, laments Anneleen Vandewynckel, secretary general of Brema, the association of ready meals in Belgium. However, they are very healthy because they do not contain very much salt and the preparation is controlled. to preserve vitamins and minerals. If the temperature of the food is constantly kept above a certain threshold, the temperature of the rooms varies from one to the other.Where the lasagna is cooked, the heat of the oven is palpable, while further up the company, a room keeps frozen food at -25° C. In the fridge there are coats, hats and gloves for the brave worker who has no problem forgetting the heat wave outside. Ovens, tanks, scales, everything is oversized in the sector. “More than 15 million meals are prepared here every year,” adds Anthony Botelberge. The ingredients are weighed to the nearest milligram. “The dishes must provide the various nutrients necessary for health and offer an adequate nutritional value, recalls the general secretary in Bremen. A prepared dish is no less healthy than a dish prepared at home. Never has the consumer eaten so healthily and in such a regimented way, and yet he has never been as distrustful of food as he is today.” In Belgium, the ready meals sector includes 42 companies with a turnover of 470 million euros. These companies works in both foodservice and distribution. “The difference between the two is the diversity of the dishes on offer, explains the managing director of Frigilunch. On the shelves in the shops, the space is more limited, so our offers too.” The recipes available in supermarkets are commissioned by distributors who prefer Belgian favorites, namely meatballs in tomato sauce and carbonades. For home service or catering companies, the offered card is very bigger. “It’s a collaboration, but the proposals come from us,” continues Anthony Botelberge. In Belgium, the market represents 208,500 tons of ready meals per year. “It’s not just dishes we buy, but a real logistical process,” assures Anneleen Vandewynckel. From the supplier to the customers, the companies take care of each step themselves: supply, the production process, distribution and marketing. In addition to retail and catering, these companies also offer their meals to schools. For example, Frigilunch has developed its own brand “Deli Meal”, which it supplies to around 150 schools, mainly in Flanders The company already warned a few months ago that must Long-term prices would rise. in the question? The drought leading to complicated harvests, the war in Ukraine and the increase in energy prices it has created, but also the post-pandemic period, which has weakened the stock of many companies. “I’ve been in the business for 20 years and it’s never been this complicated,” said Anthony Botelberge. Meat, fish, vegetables… companies in the sector have to deal with a 40% increase in the price of raw materials. “It’s huge, we don’t know.” In the price of a prepared meal, one third is intended to cover the cost of raw materials, one third for energy and one third for employment. “It’s a know-how business, adds Brema. And we have to take into account the indexation of wages.” The profitability of ready meals companies is around 3.5%. “Anyone who doesn’t raise their prices will go bankrupt”, recognizes Anthony Botelberge. In 2021, the sector appeared to recover economically, but the war in Ukraine in particular has made it no longer profitable for 30% of food companies to continue production. A survey of the 700 members of Fevia shows that today the supply of half of the food companies is disrupted and that 70% of them have to adjust the composition of their products or will soon have to do so. “We have good relations with our suppliers”, emphasizes Wim Mouton, strategic manager at Frigilunch. Maintaining the same has enabled the company to anticipate certain defects such as those affecting oils. Result, “we won’t be in short supply, he rejoices. Even if it would be impossible to deliver in large quantities.” If the price increase seems inevitable, it still has to be accepted by customers, including large retailers. “We have respected our contracts with retailers, but companies will have to renegotiate prices”, clarifies the CEO. The situation for each prepared food company is different depending on the product it offers, e.g. fresh or frozen, and the contracts with retailers are therefore different. The negotiation of prices between producers and distributors seems to be “very complex”, since the large distribution plays the card for the defense of purchasing power. And she is uncompromising, even if this means that she no longer offers certain brands to her customers.”The problem is that our supermarkets are not chauvinistic enough. They also offer ready meals from France or the expensive ones, points out the general secretary. It is absolutely necessary for to defend our Belgian know-how… but it comes at a cost.” If dishes from abroad are cheaper, it is not because Belgian companies earn more, Brema assures. “In the Netherlands, there is such great pressure on prices that it has an impact on quality.” If supermarkets offer ready meals at a more attractive price, it is of course because the consumer is demanding. “On the shelves, customers are looking for the lowest price, but they also want healthy, pesticide-free, organic and planet-friendly dishes, adds Anneleen Vandewynckel. Everyone talks about sustainability, but no one is ready to pay the price.” The sector insists: this sustainability has always been a point of attention. “We are constantly looking for ways to optimize packaging and comply with European directives to make them more sustainable”, explains Brema, who also works on the issue of waste. “Food waste is treated and destined for animal feed.” Rising prices and sustainability are therefore two challenges facing the sector, but it is not immune to the lack of talent. “If you introduce me to 500 people, I’ll hire them right away,” says Anneleen Vandewynckel. Some jobs to be filled do not require a diploma and the hours are less demanding than in the hospitality industry. “But even with daytime hours, it’s impossible to find people willing to work.” To continue to grow, the sector relies on the personalization of these prepared meals. The aim is to adapt the recipes to the nutritional needs of the consumer, whether it is a child or an elderly person. “The latter have less appetite, so it is important to offer food that is denser but also easy to swallow, explains Brema. You have to get away from classic dishes.”

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