CHICAGO — Not long ago, shoppers would enter grocery stores and leisurely add unintended purchases to their carts. Picking fresh foods along the colorful perimeter or hurriedly grabbing necessities in the middle aisles, they spent little time in the frozen section.

Today, a pragmatic consumer has emerged — one who shops less often, with a plan, and who has a healthy respect for the practical frozen aisle. With the revival of home baking, family time and redefined work lives, demand for accessible quality baked foods makes the frozen marketplace a fast-growing opportunity.

This year, homebound consumers hastily stockpiled frozen and easy-prep meals — and quickly discovered both the value and monotony of the current frozen aisle. With few opportunities to dine out, Americans are still searching for accessible restaurant and bakery-quality experiences. Now, emerging and legacy brands are stepping up to deliver high-quality frozen options at home.

Carrie Morey launched Callie’s Charleston Biscuits 15 years ago and today has four storefronts, a cookbook and a successful retail line of packaged products under the Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit name. This year, she rebranded her frozen Southern biscuits to continue serving customers in the new business climate.

“These biscuits are nostalgic,” she said, and customers want comforting home flavors more than ever. Extensive research and development makes the nostalgia effortless: The biscuits are par-baked to 90% doneness and come with precise instructions aimed at replicating the bake shop experience.

To reach customers beyond New York, chief executive officer Andy Taylor’s Levain Bakery launched frozen versions of its cookies online this year. After two years of development, the brand’s “do less, but do it better” approach found that only the freezer’s natural preservation retained the integrity of the bakery’s four iconic cookie flavors. Reaching new heights of convenience, Levain Bakery’s newest line can simply be defrosted and consumed on the go.

The flexibility of frozen empowers consumers: Single-person households can access high-quality homemade food, while families can fix dinner quickly, controlling portions and reducing waste. High-quality brands make it possible for anyone to entertain, indulge and create recipes around these ready-to-bake goods.

Frozen also caters to dietary needs that shelf-stable can’t always meet. Few gluten-free and preservative-free bread varieties were available when Tathy Vosgerau discovered she had celiac disease in 2008. Experimentation with non-GMO ingredients fueled her launch of Gifted Breads soon after. Now, the brand’s gluten-free artisanal bread is available in the freezer aisle, perfect for “having the whole family together for breakfast” regardless of dietary restrictions.

With reduced traffic in bulk and self-service aisles, the versatile frozen space is uniquely able to serve Americans’ diversifying needs. These qualities will fuel the expansion of the space, inviting innovation and responding to shifts in consumers’ lives.

Brands that want to enter this space should focus on package design and evoking the “fresher than fresh” component of the freezer. Packaging needs to reach shoppers from behind glass doors before the chill drives them onward. As such, each flavor of Callie’s Biscuits has its own vibrant-hued box with a window showcasing the biscuits’ handmade texture. Meanwhile, Levain Bakery’s classic blue décor has been translated into a recognizable box with a cross-section of its famous cookies. Gifted Breads’ royal blue package and gold ribbon speak to its premium quality, and the short ingredient list on the front communicates its clean label. The quest for quality will continue powering the growth of this category, which is perfectly positioned to take over the void left by in-person dining and frequent bakery runs. 

Natalie Shmulik is the chief executive officer of The Hatchery Chicago, a food and beverage incubator.