Can uncrustables work in the UK?

‘Thaw and eat’ is America’s hot new frozen food category. So, can products like uncrustables, frozen sandwiches, work in the UK?

January 16, 2023
Kathryn Race
Man shopping for 'thaw and eat' foods such as uncrustables in a UK supermarket
January 16, 2023
Kathryn Race

It’s already worth a cool $600m and growing rapidly, according to IRI. Meet ‘thaw and eat’, the up-and-coming frozen food category that’s making a splash across the pond and attracting investment from major brands.

The idea behind ‘thaw and eat’ is simple – and not exactly new. Products that are ready to eat once defrosted have been around for decades, while ‘thaw and serve’ is also widely used in foodservice, especially for bakery items.

What’s new about this latest generation of defrostables is that they are marketed specifically on the convenience of ‘thaw and eat’, target different occasions (think lunchboxes, breakfasts and on-the-go) and have attracted significant interest from brands.

Take Nestlé. The company’s US division launched Deliwich in 2022, frozen soft rolls filled with cheese (and ham that are ready to eat after defrosting for two to four hours. It says it sees ‘thaw and eat’ as “a very important incremental occasion” and a chance to capture new consumers.

Kellogg’s also debuted a ‘thaw and eat’ product in 2022 – Eggo waffles that don’t require a toaster – while Heinz is offering ‘thaw and eat’ sandwiches through its LaunchBox brand. Other notable ranges include Uncrustables from J.M. Smucker Co and ‘thaw and eat’ peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from Chubby Snacks.

But could the trend take off in the UK?

The market conditions certainly look positive. Frozen food boomed during the pandemic and has continued to perform well in the cost-of-living crisis. The UK frozen food category is now worth £174.5m more than in 2019, driven by consumers looking for cheaper price points, longer shelf lives and less waste.

Manufacturers and retailers have also ramped up investment, delivering high-impact NPD that is changing quality and value perceptions of frozen. Tesco’s new partnership with France’s Picard is a case in point (the Picard range also has a sizeable presence in Ocado), as are products such as Leon’s waffle fries and ByRuby, the upmarket brand of frozen ready meals that is now in Waitrose. At the other end of the market, Iceland has partnered with MyProtein to develop a range of frozen products targeted at value- and health-conscious shoppers.

All this activity is encouraging consumers to reappraise the category, creating ideal conditions for a new sub-category to come to market. Cooking and shopping habits also continue to be in flux post-pandemic, making it easier for a new product type – such as ‘thaw and eat’ – to make it into consumers’ weekly repertoire.

What’s more, after a rise in scratch-cooking during lockdown, convenience has moved back up consumers’ agenda. Kantar data published by AHDB shows 11.5% of meals in the UK now have little to no preparation time – a five-year high. The ultra-convenience of ‘thaw and eat’ would seem perfectly placed to play into this.

Then there’s the energy crisis. At a time when many UK consumers are experimenting with alternative cooking appliances (such as air fryers) in the hope of saving on energy, the promise of convenience with zero heat could prove tempting.

But ‘thaw and eat’ would also face challenges here.

While price is a big draw for shoppers and convenience is undoubtedly important, the right quality credentials remain essential.

Frozen has struggled with image problems historically and has at times been perceived as cheap and low quality. Challenging this perception is key to the continued success of the category, and it’s not obvious how the kinds of products on sale in the US (some of which look heavily processed) would help achieve this. Successful ‘thaw and eat’ NPD for the UK would likely need to look very different to what’s currently available in the US.

Freezer space is another factor. While most UK households own some kind of freezer, big, American-style units are rare. With less freezer space to play with, Brits may be more cautious about stocking up on additional frozen products – especially if they already have access to convenient chilled and ambient options, as is the case with sandwiches.

But even if ‘thaw and eat’ is a less-than-perfect fit for the UK, its rise in the US highlights that frozen remains a category that is full of untapped potential and opportunities for growth. Pre-made frozen sandwiches may not be the UK’s next big grocery hit – but you wouldn’t want to bet against smart, well-executed frozen NPD in the current climate.