ISLANDIA, N.Y. — No dairy. No grains. No refined sugars. These maxims of the paleo diet guided the development team behind a new brand of frozen meals initially created for Wal-Mart Stores.
Tastefully Plated debuted in Wal-Mart locations nationwide with a selection of paleo entrees featuring vacuum-seal, steam-heat packaging and including such varieties as braised beef with mole sauce, chipotle sweet potatoes and broccoli; Cajun style shrimp with root vegetables, corn relish and plantains; and sweet potato hash with scrambled eggs and chicken apple breakfast sausage.
The product line is manufactured by Whitsons Culinary Group, a family-owned foodservice company based in Islandia, New York. Founded in 1979, Whitsons manages and operates dining programs for school districts, health care facilities and businesses in the Northeast region of the United States. Now the company is setting out to revolutionize the frozen foods category.
The quest began when the company discovered and purchased vacuum-seal packaging technology, said Paul Whitcomb, president and CEO, in an interview with Food Business News, a sister publication to MEAT+POULTRY.
|Paul Whitcomb, president and CEO, Whitsons Culinary Group|
“About three years ago, we came across a technology that we thought was really cool, and we looked at it and thought there was an opportunity in the marketplace, but we didn’t know where it was,” Whitcomb recalled. “We just figured if we made great food in this really cool vacuum packaging that is not only impactful visually but when you heat it gives it a great eating experience, it’s transformative for the frozen food market. We kind of blindly went into that, and we chugged along for a couple years, honestly trying to figure out the technology.”
After months of trial and error with no end-game in sight, the team questioned whether to continue using the new technology, Whitcomb said.
“It was quite honestly challenging because we were spending money and money and money because we believed in the idea of the product, but we didn’t have anybody to sell it to,” Whitcomb said. “So we were kind of struggling with, ‘Do we keep going down this path because we think it will yield success, or do we just cut bait and run?’”
That’s when Wal-Mart stepped in.
“As we were perfecting but didn’t have an outlet for the meals we could create, we came across a sales partner who is now our broker, who was engaged by Wal-Mart to find a company to manufacture meals like we were making,” Whitcomb said. “It was really through that introduction that we became aware of what we’re now calling our Tastefully Plated line and our Paleo line through Wal-Mart.”
He added, “The items we had were not paleo based; there were other natural, clean, wholesome good meals, so it was really through development and partnership with Wal-Mart that we developed the paleo line.”
The Tastefully Plated paleo meals have been certified paleo-friendly by the Paleo Foundation. The brand currently offers six paleo meals at Wal-Mart, with plans to launch three more later this year. In addition to the paleo line, Tastefully Plated offers 18 other meals under its natural and original lines, which are not exclusive to Wal-Mart and include such dishes as traditional meatloaf, coconut spiced rice and spaghetti and meatballs.
“With regard to paleo, since we developed that with Wal-Mart, we did commit to exclusivity for a period of time,” Whitcomb said. “We also committed that any new development work that we do with them because of the relationship that we have, we would give them exclusivity for a period of time with those particular items. We are in the not so distant future able to bring those concepts to other retailers.”
To support expansion of the Tastefully Plated business, Whitsons is building a new production facility that will significantly increase capacity.
“We believe there is an opportunity in the marketplace,” Whitcomb said. “We believe we have the right product and technology and price point, and we are investing in that substantially to not only meet Wal-Mart’s needs but to meet other consumer and retailer needs as well.”
He added, “Having a partner like Wal-Mart have faith in the product, in their vision and our ability to deliver it, essentially created a national brand for Whitsons, and it’s something we’re very proud of, but also something we’re thankful for.”