Today is a challenging time for the food industry with inflation leading to rising food costs and at times unreliable supply chains.
But there are some bright spots, in particular, industry insiders report that an important trend is “more and more consumers are seeking authentic cuisines and unique flavors.” One brand that is benefiting from these trends is Saffron Road, which, according to A.C. Nielsen is “America’s fastest-growing brand in natural protein-based frozen meals.”
I had a chance to connect with Saffron Road founder and CEO Adnan Durrani, who noted that a key aspect of their success is that “unlike some ethnic brands that are handcuffed to only offer one type of international cuisine, Saffron Road’s advantage has been success with offering multiple globally inspired meals, with flavors from many different regions and cultures.”
In the midst of keeping up with demand, creating new products and increasing sales, Saffron Road also became a certified B Corp earlier this year, which Adnan told me was a validation of its ongoing commitment to quality ingredients, high standards and animal welfare.
Read more below for my discussion with Adnan about the brand’s 13+ year journey so far and what’s coming up next.
Christopher Marquis: Can you discuss the certification process? What were some challenges you faced? What were some key learnings? What does this certification mean to you?
Adnan Durrani: Being recognized as a B Corp is a tremendous honor. I’ve spent three decades dedicated to socially conscious ventures, and this certification reinforces our commitment at Saffron Road. We’re all about our Journey to Better®, which means crafting products with high-quality, ethically sourced ingredients that not only taste better but are also better for the environment, farmers, animals, and hopefully your health. This recognition is a powerful testament to our dedication and validates our team’s daily efforts.
However, the certification process was indeed rigorous—18 months of very intense audits! One of the challenges we faced was how to communicate and get recognized for Saffron Road’s fulfilling the enormous need for halal foods among 8 million Americans who follow a specific halal diet –many of whom are in disenfranchised communities and live in food deserts or are under the poverty line. It’s very difficult to get any census data on this, so we didn’t really get credit for that. Yet, as the only nationally available halal brand, it’s a core part of our mission for the betterment of humanity. I was thrilled to find out our compassionate and equitable employee practices with our team are exceptional —e.g., flex hours, DEI, ESG, ESOP, and ratio of C-Suite compensation to average team members, all scored very favorably with B Lab. This was a strong testament to our egalitarian team culture at Saffron Road—from the top down.
Marquis: It’s not an easy time to be a leader in the food industry. Inflation is at an all-time high, and food costs are way up. How are you facing these challenges head-on?
Durrani: Our products have been more than 99% in stock every month for the past 40 months in a row thanks to our awesome team’s unmatched supply chain discipline. However, as you mentioned, inflation, rising food costs and other headwinds are affecting consumer behavior across the spectrum.
In some ways, this has helped the industry as frozen foods are more popular than ever, reaching $72 billion in sales last year [American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI)]. According to a study on behalf of AFFI, 29% of consumers shared that they have expanded their freezer capacity since 2020, buying additional fridge/freezer combos or chest freezers to keep a larger supply of longer-lasting frozen foods on hand.
Indeed, these inflationary headwinds have altered consumer behaviors due to overstretched households, which has temporarily impacted unit sales growth. I believe that retailers need to deepen their partnerships with vendors and work together on promotions, rewarding those suppliers who have made a great effort to reward them with supply. In fact, 84.51 did a study last year revealing that 80% of consumers will shift to a new brand if theirs is not in stock. Keeping fulfillment over 99% is very costly for us to do, but we take channel integrity quite seriously and several of our bigger retailers have been great partners in developing a win-win strategy accordingly.
Marquis: How else are you working with retailers in these challenging times?
Durrani: As any CPG food brand will tell you, placement is everything. And for us, integrated merchandising is key. Unlike some ethnic brands that are handcuffed to only offer one type of international cuisine, Saffron Road’s key advantage has been our success with offering multiple globally inspired meals, with flavors from many different regions and cultures. Another major stand-out is our clean-label nutrition profiles, using only premium ingredients, and “free-from” attributes: No Antibiotics Ever, No Protein Isolates Ever, Certified Gluten Free and Halal, or Non-GMO Verified. Because of these stellar standards, Saffron Road is now the #1 better-for-you brand of frozen meals featuring animal protein, a leader in “premiumization”. We have thus been able to partner with our retailers and merchandise ,and successfully gain share, with our entrees slotted in freezer doors alongside mainstream CPG brands —not just in the ethnic aisle, since among our core Millennial consumers, ethnic options are the new normal.
Modern consumers are prioritizing the better-for-you meal segment and as such, clean-label, healthier frozen products will continue to be disruptive and drive growth in 2024 and beyond. Vegan, traditional vegetarian, gluten-free and “clean,” “free-from” entrees continue to have strong affinity with Millennial and modern consumers, whom Saffron Road indexes higher with than any other frozen meal brand. So why not celebrate cultural diversity by placing global flavors right next to the mainstream? I was quoted in a well-researched 2021 article Priya Krishna wrote for The New York Times on the topic that is great food for thought. Some retailers like Kroger and Stop & Shop have already started integrating what were once considered “ethnic” foods into the other parts of the store, and I applaud them for it.
Marquis: You’ve mentioned a bit about modern consumer trends already. In your assessment, what other trends will take off with consumers in the near future? Do you think consumers care much about your social mission and B Corp certifications?
Durrani: If you asked me this question 15 years ago, I would say the jury was still out since ESG and mission-based brands were just starting to make an initial impact. But today—I must say “Mission Accomplished !” Saffron Road indexes higher with Millennials than any other frozen entrée brand. This generation seeks brands that align with their values of sustainability, inclusivity, and social responsibility Nielson recently stated that 70% of Millennials will pay over 20% more for a brand whose values align with theirs. For these young consumers, 83% want companies to align with their values and 76% want CEOs to speak out on issues they care about. That’s according to 5WPR’s 2020 Consumer Culture Report. So yes, I do believe our B Corp certification will attract even more new to brand consuerms into Saffron road, as well as deepen the emotional connection of our current core consumers to Saffron road.
Plant-forward is here to stay, but we’ll continue to see a shift to whole plant-based proteins like chickpeas, legumes/beans, and coconut and away from fake meat. Saffron Road has never, ever used ultra-processed protein isolates in any of our entrees and we never will. All of our plant-forward entrees are made with minimally processed real proteins, not chemical-laden protein isolates that were once all the rage but have since fallen from grace. We’re already seeing a big decline in the faux plant-based sector, with some major brands now bankrupt and others down 70%, so this is something we’re watching closely.
Marquis: What’s coming up next for your brand?
Durrani: We recently introduced four new frozen entrees to match consumer demand: Moroccan-Inspired Chicken & Potatoes, Chicken Enchiladas al Chipotle, Coconut Cauliflower Curry and Chickpea Masala. We’ll be testing a new look for our packaging this fall at Walmart and other retailers that is more modern and streamlined, starting with our top four Indian entrees: Coconut Curry Chicken, Chicken Tikka Masala, Chicken Biryani and Butter Chicken. Of course, you can expect the same first-class culinary experience with these entrees, since none of the recipes for these top-selling SKUs will change.
We’re also starting to think about new categories and will have some exciting new products for next year that speak to Millennials, Gen Z, and even Gen Alpha!