This is the second article in a series looking at prepared foods and meal solutions at grocery stores. You can read the first installment here.
Eating meals out of bowls may be an ancient practice, but Americans have a knack for reinventing ideas to create new trends. In the past few years, new twists on bowl-based meals have fueled a craze for the hungry, convenience-seeking consumer.
While there's no single point of origin for bowl mania, the trend gained momentum as burrito bowls, grain bowls, Buddha bowls, power bowls and Acai bowls began popping up in restaurants, on food blogs and social media. When bowl-style eating reached its tipping point somewhere around 2017, Consumer Reports dubbed the meal the "ultimate healthy comfort food."
Now, bowls are pervasive across food retail — available in frozen food aisles, through direct-to-consumer meal delivery and at made-to-order bowl stations in grocery stores.
Mix and match meals
So why have retailers recently embraced bowls? For starters, they offer customers the option to create virtually any style of meal, mixing and matching different bases like rice, quinoa or pasta with veggies, proteins, legumes and sauces.
According to John Connelly, vice president of marketing and innovation at food and beverage development firm Mattson, people love bowls because they are simple to understand and easy to order. In Mattson's internal research, the company found people like the customization and transparency of bowls.
"The guests see the ingredients in bowls, and they can see healthy ingredients, they can see unhealthy ingredients, but on the whole, the fact that you can see the ingredients is appealing," Connelly said.
Consumer Reports found similar sentiment among consumers in its evaluation of frozen grain bowls. Ellen Klosz, nutritionist at Consumer Reports, said in an email to Grocery Dive that people today are looking for foods with fewer and simpler ingredients.
"The great thing about grain bowls is that healthfulness doesn't have to come at the expense of taste. In our tests, we found that the best products used high-quality ingredients that provided plenty of flavor even though they were low in sodium," Klosz said in an email to Grocery Dive.
As grocers turn to remodels and enhanced in-store experiences, many have added made-to-order bowl stations to their prepared food sections. Customers can order some variation of bowls at select ShopRite, Stop & Shop, GreenWise and Cub Food locations. In addition, brands such as Amy's and Mosaic serve up frozen bowls, and direct-to-consumer meal subscription company Freshly is preparing to launch a line of bowls this summer.
"The fact that you can see the ingredients is appealing."
Vice president of innovation at Mattson
Not only do bowls offer appealing flavor and variety, but they also offer a more convenient way of eating, according to Emily Buckley, senior director, meals portfolio at Freshly. In focus groups, Freshly found that customers think bowls epitomize both convenience and health because of their well-balanced makeup. Freshly’s new bowls will include bite-sized ingredients and offer starch, veggies, protein and sauce.
"There are so many different, unique flavors going on with bowls, which I think is the beauty of this whole movement," Buckley told Grocery Dive.
A focus on fresh and flavor
Bowls have been on the menu since doors opened two years ago at Choice Market, an upscale convenience store concept in Denver. According to founder and CEO Mike Fogarty, the bowl style of eating offers an on-the-go meal solution that has healthy, lean proteins, good grains and allows the store to showcase the local produce it carries. Each bowl at Choice Markets also includes a scratch-made sauce.
"Bowls have always been a big piece of our business and are a top seller for us," Fogarty told Grocery Dive.
At Choice Market, bowls are priced at $15 or less and customers can customize their own or order from one of a few set menu items, which changes seasonally depending on the produce available in Colorado.
Fogarty said one popular bowl right now is the Tabouli Bowl, which includes local tri-colored quinoa made with parsley and lemon, a portion of sustainable salmon, asparagus and house tzatziki sauce. On the indulgent side, Choice Market makes the Southern Comfort Bowl, which features a mac-and-cheese base, fried chicken, buffalo cauliflower and Meyer lemon pico.
The variety of ingredients and emphasis on local produce makes sourcing complex, especially given that Choice Market serves up bowls until 3 a.m.
"For us it's quite an extensive operation on the foodservice side, but that's by design, honestly," Fogarty said. "We want a really high-quality, scratch kitchen that's representative of a local community."
Also unique to Choice Market's bowl offerings are the omnichannel ordering options. Fogarty said the model allows customers to order online and eat in-store, order from a kiosk or a traditional point-of-sale cash register. Customers can also order through several third-party delivery partners. Eventually, Choice Market will process and deliver bowl orders through its own app.
For Freshly's customers, bowl-style meals have been on the menu before, but the new line launching in August will be a distinct line of grain bowls.
One of the six new menu items in the bowl line is a Lemon Tahini Turkey Bowl, which Buckley said plays to the popularity of Mediterranean cuisine. The bowl features diced turkey, a base of quinoa, buckwheat and brown rice, and veggies including diced carrots, spinach and sauteed onions. To finish it off, Freshly tops the bowl with a sauce made of tahini, lemon and cilantro.
Freshly's line of bowls will be priced the same as its existing menu items, which vary based on the size of a customer's box. Meals can be ordered in quantities of four, six, nine and 12, ranging from $8.99 to $12.50 per meal. The company develops fresh meals that are pre-prepped and cooked and just need to be reheated.
Bowls are here to stay
Another benefit for retailers in selling bowls is that they are a margin-friendly product, Connelly said. Typically in quick service restaurants, it is standard to offer six ounces of protein for a lunch or dinner item. But with bowls, Connelly said protein is closer to four ounces and ingredients are confined by the bowl's size.
"I think that the food form is very appealing, and it doesn’t surprise me at all what we're seeing in grocery trends around those types of operators trying to get into foodservice," Connelly said.
Bowls won't be coming off the menu at Choice Market anytime soon. Fogarty noted that bowls offer wide variety — healthy quinoa one day and mac-and-cheese the next — and provide different levels of satiation and ingredient profiles. Some customers may gravitate toward umami flavors like Korean barbecue sauce and Himalayan rice, while others may turn more to a Southern-inspired flavor profile.
"That diversity, I think, really appeals to people and it's how most people are wanting to eat," he said.
At Freshly, Buckley sees the popularity of bowls staying strong because of what they represent, rather than the bowl itself. Core to the success of bowls, she said, are convenience and health.
"I strongly believe that bowls are here to stay," Buckley said.