Fit Kitchen launched into Sainsbury’s last January with a range of four ready meals. Over the past 12 months, the company has extended that to six ready meal SKUs as well as launching a line of salads and smaller breakfast and snacking protein pots.
Fit Kitchen offers a range of high-protein chilled ready meals that are rich in fibre and micro vitamins. Developed by nutritionists, the ready meals are also low in carbohydrates and contain less than 300 calories.
“We have tried to expand it outside of purely ready meals and into other compatible categories,” Pinnell said as he reflected on a year that left him wondering “how we found the time”.
Fit Kitchen’s product development has targeted what the company believes are distinct gaps in the market. The company’s range and branding aims to act as a differentiator between the private label and legacy brands that currently dominate the sector.
Pinnell elaborated: “The ready meals category is largely dominated by own label product. There are a number of legacy brands, such as Weight Watchers, which really focus on low-calorie diets. But rather than doing a low-calorie mac and cheese, which is mainly beige, we thought it was important to do something colourful and vibrant, that really moved the needle on the way people perceive ready meals.”
Fit Kitchen’s products are inspired by Middle Eastern, Thai, Malaysian and Chinese cuisines while its branding and positive nutrition messaging resonates with a “lifestyle aware” target audience, the food entrepreneur suggested.
“A brand can really help the category by appealing to a lifestyle aware, gym-going audience. We have tried really hard with our branding and recipe development to make it exciting and relevant to those consumers.
“It’s not what you take out. It is tough to do a low-calorie version of something that contains 80% cheese in a sauce, for example. But there are many cuisines with lovely textures and light flavours that fit perfectly without having to compromise in your recipe development.”
According to Euromonitor International, the UK ready meal category performed "well" in 2017 supported by premiumisation and growth of brands such as Charlie Bigham’s, Slimming World and Genius.
The sector is expected to report a compound annual growth rate of 1% over the next five years.
"There is no sign of a slowdown in volume sales of ready meals as consumers continue looking for convenience," Euromonitor said.
Fit Kitchen is benefiting from changing perceptions to high-protein products.
“Protein is shaking off a very bodybuilder image which is clearly very masculine and aimed at a very specific type of consumer. There has been an increase in awareness about how important protein is as part of a balanced diet.”
And for Fit Kitchen, balance is key, Pinnell observed. “Another important aspect of our meals is that – with the exception of the smaller pots – they contain three portions of vegetables. It is important for us to have nutrient dense ingredients. Some of the most nutrient dense ingredients can be some of the most calorie light. That is a good way to be able to give people filling, high fibre meals and lots of micro-vitamins."
Fit Kitchen currently takes a lot of inspiration from South East Asia. This year the company is also rolling out additional SKUs that are influenced by “hugely popular” European cuisines.
“We are doing a variety of Italian food looking at using more spiralized vegetables and different ingredients going into pasta… chickpea pasta or edamame spaghetti. With Italian and Spanish food, we are asking how we can crate lower carb, more vegetable-rich dishes with some of those popular flavours,” Pinnell revealed.
Fit Kitchen is constantly looking at innovation opportunities to keep the range “fresh”, he continued. “We are looking to change one product every six weeks so loyal customers can still have their favourites but there is also choice and innovation pulsing through the range.”
The majority of Fit Kitchen’s products use poultry or eggs as the primary source of protein. However, Pinnell is cognisant of the growing demand for meat free products and alternative proteins in the UK.
The group launched its first vegan product – a tofu-based ready meal this month. It also has a range of meat-free options, such as flavoured falafels, in development
“Plant-based diets are reaching a tipping point. It was important to include as part of our future range whilst also having meat and egg-based products as well."
Innovation is also core to Fit Kitchen’s diversification strategy. Like the core ready meals line, the group’s breakfast and snack pots were launched to meet a specific gap in the market.
“It was looking at how we could help our grocery partners with their food to-go-offer. Part of that was chilled snacking. We saw people were eating little and often,” Pinnell recalled. “We observed something was missing in food to go in grocery retailers and wanted to dev something to help fill that gap.”
Further diversification plans are afoot. The group has been working with snacks giant PepsiCo as part of its start-up accelerator programme to develop a range of ambient snacks.
“We have looked at nacho style crisps and asked: how can you change perceptions of those – and the ingredients – to make it more nutritional. We have developed a chic pea nacho that is baked to see if we could take a more nationally dense approach to ambient snacking,” Pinnell said.
“This is our first experiment. There is a lot of testing that we still need to do. But [expanding into ambient snacks] is a longer-term goal.”
Ambient snacking could also be a key to unlocking international expansion.
Currently, the growth outside the UK is hindered by the short shelf life of its fresh chilled products. “This is one of the challenges we want to address with our ambient snacking development,” Pinnell explained.
He does also see the potential to expand in ready meals internationally: “In the UK we have a mature ready meals sector that they don’t have in some other European markets. Long-term there is a lot of opportunities in Europe and beyond for the Fit Kitchen brand.”
We will be examining category and market expansion opportunities for high protein products at Food Protein Vision in March. The event is dedicated to addressing some of the big picture questions and future growth opportunities in the protein space. Click here to find out more.