Today is a difficult time for the food industry, with inflation leading to rising food costs and sometimes unreliable supply chains.
But there are some bright spots, namely, industry insider report that an important trend is “more and more consumers are looking for authentic cuisines and unique tastes”. One brand benefiting from these trends is Saffron Road, which, according to AC Nielsen
is “America’s fastest-growing brand in natural protein-based frozen meals.”
I had the opportunity to connect with Saffron Road founder and CEO Adnan Durrani, who noted that a key aspect of their success is that “unlike some national brands that are handcuffed to only offering one type of international cuisine , Saffron Road’s advantage has been success by offering many globally inspired meals, with flavors from many different regions and cultures.”
Amidst meeting 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 continued commitment to quality ingredients, high standards and animal welfare.
Read more below for my conversation with Adnan about the brand’s 13+ year journey so far and what’s next.
Christopher Marquis: Can you discuss the certification process? What were some challenges you faced? What were some key takeaways? What does this certification mean to you?
Adnan Durrani: Being recognized as a B Corp is a huge honor. I have spent three decades dedicated to socially conscious ventures and this certification reinforces our commitment to Saffron Road. We’re all about the Journey to Better®, which means creating products with high-quality, ethically sourced ingredients that not only taste better but are better for the environment, farmers, animals and hopefully your health. This recognition is a strong testament to our dedication and validates the daily efforts of our team.
However, the certification process was indeed rigorous — 18 months of intense scrutiny! One of the challenges we faced was how to communicate and recognize that Saffron Road fulfilled the huge need for halal foods among the 8 million Americans who follow a specific halal diet—many of whom are in disenfranchised communities and live in food deserts or are below the poverty line. It’s very hard to get census data for this, so we didn’t really get credit for it. However, as the only nationally available halal brand, it is a key part of our mission for the betterment of humanity. I was thrilled to discover that our employees’ compassionate and fair practices with our team are outstanding—eg. flexible hours, DEI, ESG, ESOP, and the ratio of C-Suite compensation to average team members all scored very positively with B Lab. This was a strong testament to our equal 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 very high. How do you face these challenges head on?
Durrani: Us Products have been more than 99% in stock every month for the past 40 months in a row, thanks to the unparalleled supply chain discipline of our formidable team. 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 by purchasing additional refrigerator/freezer combinations or freezers to maintain a larger supply of longer-lasting frozen foods.
Indeed, these inflationary headwinds have changed consumer attitudes due to the overstretching of households, which has temporarily affected unit sales growth. I believe that retailers should deepen their partnerships with vendors and collaborate on promotions, rewarding those vendors who have gone to great lengths to reward them with an offer. In fact, 84.51 did a study last year that revealed 80% of consumers will switch to a new brand if theirs is out of stock. Keeping integration above 99% is very costly for us, but we take channel integrity very seriously and several of our largest 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 offering only one type of international cuisine, Saffron Road’s key strength has been our success in offering multiple globally inspired meals, with flavors from many different regions and cultures. Another important feature is our clean label nutritional profiles, using only high-quality ingredients and “free from” features: 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 best-for-you frozen meal brand with animal protein, a leader in ‘premium utilisation’. We were thus able to partner with our retailers and merchandisers and successfully gain share, with our fare positioned on freezer doors alongside major CPG brands—not just in the ethnic aisle, as among our core Millennial consumers, ethnic choices 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 disrupt and drive growth in 2024 and beyond. Vegan, traditional vegetarian, gluten-free and ‘clean’, ‘free’ foods continue to have a strong affinity with Millennial and modern consumers, with whom Saffron Road ranks higher than any other frozen meal brand. So why not celebrate cultural diversity by placing global flavors right next to the mainstream? I referred to a well researched 2021 article Priya Krishna wrote about The New York Times
Marquis: You have already mentioned a bit about modern consumer trends. What other trends do you think will take off with consumers in the near future? Do you think consumers care a lot about your social mission and B Corp certifications?
Durrani: If you had asked me this question 15 years ago, I would have said the jury was still out as ESG and mission-based brands were just beginning to make an initial impact. But today—I have to say “Mission Accomplished!” Saffron Road scores higher with Millennials than any other frozen goods brand. This generation seeks brands that align with values of sustainability, involvement and social responsibility Nielson recently stated that 70% of Millennials will pay over 20% more for a brand whose values align with their own. For these young consumers, 83% want companies to align with their values and 76% want CEOs to speak out about issues they care about. This is according to 5WPR’s 2020 Consumer Culture Report. So yes, I believe our B Corp certification will attract even more new consumers to 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 will continue to see a change whole plant proteins like chickpeas, pulses/beans and coconut and away from fake meat. Saffron Road has never, ever used highly processed protein isolates in any of our foods and we never will. All of our plant-based starters are made with minimally processed real proteins, not the chemical-laced protein isolates that were once all the rage but have since fallen out of favor. We’re already seeing a big decline in the faux plant industry, with some big brands now out of business and others down 70%, so that’s something we’re watching closely.
Marquis: What’s next for your brand?
Durrani: We recently introduced four new frozen meals to meet consumer demand: Moroccan-inspired Chicken & Fries, Chicken Enchiladas al Chipotle, Coconut Cauliflower Curry and Chickpea Masala. We will be testing a new look for our packaging this fall at Walmart
We are also starting to think about new categories and will have some exciting new products for next year that will speak to Millennials, Gen Z and even Gen Alpha!