Since the end of 2018, Ernst Gourmet GmbH has been presenting innovative ready meals. They are fresh, resource-saving, without preservatives and more durable than competing products.
It all started with customer enquiries. “Can’t you also offer ready meals for lunch? Something tasty that goes fast and is still healthy? Christina Ernst, Edeka saleswoman from Reisbach in Lower Bavaria, heard this question again and again. Especially since she opened her canteen kitchen with EU certification. Here, regional snacks are prepared which are sold in the bakery shops of her four Edeka stores and in the branches of her subsidiary “Ernst backen mit Herz GmbH”.
Alternative for lunch
Ernst and “Backen-mit-Herz” managing director Stefan Gratzfeld began to look around for possibilities to include tasty ready meals in their assortment. They had to be tasty and rich in vitamins, as well as healthy and wholesome. And sustainably produced – preferably with ingredients from the region and without preservatives. They also had to be quick to prepare. Aspects such as a long shelf life, maximum food safety and a resource-saving production process were also decisive. “We couldn’t find an offer that even came close to what we had in mind,” says Gratzfeld, describing the frustrating search. “We simply didn’t like the dishes. There was nothing crunchy, nothing fresh and the food did not have the quality and sustainability we had in mind”.
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This changed at the beginning of 2018 after a conversation with Micvac. The Swedish food tech company has developed a system for the production of tasty, healthy and long-life chilled ready-to-serve meals that do not require preservatives thanks to a natural vacuum. At the heart of the Micvac system are the microwave tunnel, the patented trays and the intelligent valve. The fresh ingredients are filled into the FlexTrays and sealed with foil and an applied Micvac valve. From then on, the trays remain closed until consumption, which ensures food safety. They are then cooked and pasteurised for five to ten minutes in microwaves with a combination of heat and steam, the valve opens and the oxygen escapes.
Thanks to the gentle short heating time, not only the vitamins are preserved, but also the shape, texture and colour of the individual ingredients. During the cooling process, the valve closes again and a natural vacuum is created, which ensures the long shelf life of the dishes. For a fast, healthy meal, the dishes are heated in standard household microwaves. The valve announces with a whistling sound that the food is ready to eat. “We found the technology exciting right from the start and the food was simply delicious, like freshly cooked,” recalls Gratzfeld.
In a short time, the chefs at Ernst Gourmet developed 30 dishes. After a major tasting by employees, partners and customers, 16 were selected for sale in the first pilot phase. Marketing played an important role right from the start. The name was the program: Koch in der Box” is literally the little chef in the vacuum packaging. And with the addition “with a difference”, the marketing experts also took up the valve and the innovative preparation method. In addition to brand and claim, pricing was of great importance for the market launch. It was important for Ernst & Co. to differentiate “Koch in der Box” from conventional convenience foods in terms of price in order to highlight the quality of the ingredients, the preparation and the packaging. They placed it in a medium to higher price range.
Successful German premiere
At the end of 2018, the sale of 16 “cook-in-the-box-with-a-whistle” dishes started in the supermarkets and bakery branches of the Ernst Group. “Before Christmas, we were listed in the assortment of two other Edeka stores in the region,” recalls Gratzfeld. “The interest is great and also comes from business areas that we didn’t have on the screen,” he admits. Hoteliers and system caterers approached him, as did operators of student residences and business centres. Ernst is now examining the introduction of refrigerated vending machine solutions for their needs. “A few microwaves and crockery next to it and the 24/7 “chef-in-the-box” restaurant is ready,” says Gratzfeld.
He has already implemented this in the entrance area of the Garching store. Here, there are two microwaves in which customers can warm up their dishes and eat right in the market.