Display of Kevin's Natural Foods meals surrounded by fresh vegetables.
The concept behind Kevin’s Natural Foods has dual trends at play: the U.S. consumers’ ever-growing obsession with health, and their heightened demand for convenience. — Kevin's Natural Foods

Why it matters:

  • U.S. consumers’ ever-burgeoning focus on health has contributed to a $4.5 trillion global wellness industry.
  • Consumers are also seeking out additive-free meal options that are convenient and ready-made.
  • Leaning into those trends, Kevin’s Natural Foods combines ‘clean’ eating with heat-and-eat meals.

We’re entering a renaissance of frozen and ready-to-eat meals. The days of tasteless, low-calorie microwave dinners are becoming a thing of the past, as innovators in the prepared food space are finding ways to incorporate quality ingredients and flavor into easy, health-minded, heat-and-eat dishes.

Kevin McCray, founder of Kevin’s Natural Foods, believes that diet and nutrition can act as a form of preventative medicine. He also believes that can be achieved without expensive specialty grocers or a personal chef. The success of his brand is proof positive: Now stocked in over 8,000 retail doors across the country, the line of home-ready sous vide meals finished 2020 with just under $50 million in sales, and is on track to reach $100 million in 2021.

“Both retailers and consumers have been remarkably responsive,” McCray told CO—. “Once the brand hit stores in August 2019, it instantly took off.”

The concept behind Kevin’s Natural Foods dovetails with dual trends at play: The U.S. consumers’ ever-growing obsession with health, which has contributed to the $4.5 trillion global wellness industry, and their heightened demand for convenience, as they seek out minimally processed, additive-free meal options that come ready-made.

[Read on other food-based business ideas.]

According to Grandview Research, the global ready-meals market is booming: Valued at $159 billion in 2019, it is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 5.5% between now and 2027.

From a personal paleo experiment to Costco’s shelves

In his twenties, McCray was hit with a life-threatening autoimmune disorder that had him in and out of the hospital every time he experienced a flare-up. His solution came not from conventional medication, but from an experimental change to his diet that prevented inflammation in the body. In eating paleo ( a lean and clean diet inspired by the days of hunting and gathering), McCray found a new way to keep his autoimmune disorder from running his life.

McCray suspected he must not be the only one who could be helped by a similar diet. However, the business expert in him — he’s a former brand strategist and Save Mart marketing executive — knew that there had to be a more accessible way for the average person to make changes to their diet. For McCray, bringing his vision to life on store shelves was a matter of finding the right partners to make it happen. He found that in chef and restauranteur Dan Costa, who ensures the brand is tracking the latest food trends and consistently delivering on flavor.

So McCray combined clean eating with the convenience of heat-and-eat meals, which turned out to be a formula that served a market need, he said.

Key to the brand’s success was securing major retail partners including Costco, Publix, Whole Foods and HEB. However, it’s the direct-to-consumer channel that’s been “vital to helping build a passionate following by making sure we can get the product to folks that want it, even if they live far away from a participating store, [or] if they want to try a broader assortment than what their local market carries,” he said.

[More here on how businesses are cashing in on the convenience trend.]

 Kevin McCray, founder of Kevin's Natural Foods, in kitchen with a display of meals and seasonings.
Kevin McCray, founder of Kevin's Natural Foods. — Kevin's Natural Foods

Betting that heathy fast food that tastes good too is a long-term winning strategy

Though the average consumer spent more time cooking at home during the pandemic, kitchen fatigue combined with a slow return to hectic work and school schedules could mean there is plenty of future opportunity in the pre-made meal space. According to Grand View Research, the global ready-meals market is booming: Valued at $159 billion in 2019, it is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 5.5% between now and 2027.

“There has been a lot of focus on healthy prepared foods recently, especially in the direct-to-consumer space,” said McCray, “however, one thing is missing––flavor. We truly feel that by making healthy prepared foods that taste better than their unhealthy alternatives, we can reverse the dietary habits that are making our country sick.”

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