Snacks are having a moment and food makers cashing in

February 26, 2016

Samantha Bomkamp
Chicago Tribune
February 22, 2016
http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-snacking-boom-0223-biz-20160219-story.html

The market for snacks, sold at Walgreens and other retailers, is growing rapidly, analysts say, and manufacturers are working to cash in on the popularity. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

The market for snacks, sold at Walgreens and other retailers, is growing rapidly, analysts say, and manufacturers are working to cash in on the popularity. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

Three squares are so passe. Snacking is having a moment, and — you’re driving it.

You could be a 25-year-old Instagram-loving foodie, who shares daily updates of your homemade mini-meals and trendy restaurant tapas. Or a 33-year-old budding entrepreneur, who opts for smoothies and meal replacement bars because you don’t have time to shop, but have no time for junk food, either. Or a 41-year-old father, who indulges in a daily Starbucks run with co-workers. Or a 65-year-old retiree who isn’t up to preparing dinner anymore and opts for a bowl of popcorn or ice cream instead.

Consumers are driving food industry players — manufacturers and restaurants — to introduce items that satisfy a rapidly growing appetite for smaller meals that can be consumed on the run, even though it may not be the healthiest way to10 eat. Whether the fear of calories posted on restaurant menu boards is causing us to order smaller meals or hectic schedules are driving us to this new kind of eating, major food companies have caught on in a big way.

“The tradition of a piece of fruit or a handful of nuts as a snack — those are still there, but overall the definition of a snack has dramatically changed,” said Technomic President Darren Tristano.

Snacks spell big opportunity for food companies because they tend to be more expensive than traditional meal components. And one look around a grocery store shows that retailers like their potential too, as snacks get more prominent space on shelves, with some healthier fare being stocked in the produce department.

At cereal powerhouse Kellogg, whose brands include Pringles, Cheez-It, Keebler and TownHouse crackers, snacks have gone from 20 percent of its business in 2000 to almost 50 percent today.

This year, the company expects brands that have been struggling, like Kashi and Special K, to lead the growth. Both saw strong sales in the early 2000s, but fell out of favor when consumers steered away from “diet food,” Kellogg CEO John Bryant said on a conference call last week.

The brands have been revamped, and boxes include buzzwords like “nourish” instead of “diet,” and Kellogg is focusing the brands on hand-held forms, instead of just cereal by the bowl. “The expectation of consumers in the snack market has changed,” he said.

But Kellogg also expects brands like Pringles and Cheez-Its will be strong, and it is hurrying to develop more single-serve packages for its snacks so they become a grab-and-go item in a convenience or drug store.

At Hormel, whose meat brands including Jenni-O and Spam, it’s Wholly Guacamole that’s stealing the show, particularly in single-serve containers, according to CEO Jeff Ettinger. Hormel also recently introduced Skippy PB Bites with either a crunchy peanut butter or pretzel core.

Oak Brook-based TreeHouse Foods used to count beverages as its biggest category, but a 2014 acquisition propelled its snacks category to No. 1, and it now says it’s the largest private-label trail mix maker in the U.S.

Even health care companies are entering the snack market.

Abbott Laboratories, maker of Pedialyte, Ensure and Similac formula, earlier this month launched a line of snack bars called Curate aimed at adults seeking healthier alternatives to chips or cookies.

And last month, Chicago-based Hillshire Brands introduced a line of snacks aimed squarely at the young Instagram-addicted foodie, launched at a VIP event in New York with a former “Top Chef” contestant and Bravo’s Andy Cohen. The snacks include chicken bites with sauces like mango habanero and spicy chipotle and “small plates” of salame, cheese and crackers.

“Consumers are shifting away from this traditional snacking definition to include a more expanded variety of options to satisfy a more sophisticated food palate,” said Jeff Caswell, vice president and general manager of Hillshire Snacking. “This evolving definition is being spearheaded by millennials. … They have a passion for food exploration and like to try new flavors and push boundaries.”

He said sales of the new line have exceeded expectations.

Millennials, the largest segment of the U.S. population, are driving the snacking industry to create more fresh, healthy and protein-packed options, but other generations are partaking as well. People tend to snack more as they age, in part because older adults don’t have young families to cook for, said Darren Seifer, an NPD Group food and beverage analyst. The biggest snackers are those 55 to 64, NPD’s research shows.

But more snacking doesn’t always mean hitting the vending machine for a bag of M&Ms. Americans are eating fewer sweet snacks, choosing to save them for an evening indulgence, Seifer said. Their consumption fell about 5 percent in the past decade, compared with savory snacks like chips and beef jerky, which grew by 7 percent in the same period. Meanwhile, so-called “better-for-you” snacks like yogurt and cottage cheese cups have grown 25 percent.

“We start off the day with the best of intentions and then about 8 p.m., after you put the kids to bed, we’re allowing ourselves a bit of indulgence,” he said.

Deerfield-based Oreo maker Mondelez has seen both sides of America’s snacking obsession. Spurred by slowing sales of sweet snacks, it introduced Oreo thins to cater to those who want a healthier version. Mondelez, which also makes Ritz crackers, Cadbury chocolate, Sour Patch Kids and Honey Maid graham crackers, says it’s also focusing on smaller sizes for its brands to cater to snackers.

The company already derives 85 percent of its sales from snacks, up 10 percent from a year ago, and it sees a great deal of growth potential this year.

“Why do we like snacks so much? Quite simply, because of their growth potential. Snacking is a $1.2 trillion market, and it’s growing everywhere around the world,” said Mondelez CEO Irene Rosenfeld at a conference last week.

Smaller, more frequent meals may appeal to many Americans, but they’re not necessarily the healthiest option.

“Snacking or frequent eating tends to be less satisfying to your brain,” said Georgie Fear, a registered dietician and author of “Lean Habits For Lifelong Weight Loss.” “It’s hard to feel like we’ve eaten if we’ve just unwrapped a bar.”

In general, frequent snacks lead to “more dishes, more calories, and they’ve also hampered people’s decision-making abilities” because people can use snacks as an emotional crutch, Fear added.

There is a place for healthy snacking, Fear said, but she recommends sticking to options like whole fruit and yogurt. “Many people have gone out of their way to shift to smaller, more frequent meals. And then they (get more information) and think, ‘I’ve been washing that much Tupperware and it’s working against me?’ “


We want a ‘natural’ Big Mac. Why fast-food giants are finding it tough to deliver

November 4, 2015

2015-11-04_1641Peter Frost
Copyright © 2015 Crain Communication, Inc.
http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20151024/ISSUE01/310249994/we-want-a-natural-big-mac-why-fast-food-giants-are-finding-it-tough-to-deliver

Chain restaurants that want to jump on the all-natural beef, chicken or pork bandwagon better expect to wait in line.

While higher-end restaurants in Chicago and other big cities have long turned to niche natural-meat suppliers, McDonald’s, Subway, Chick-fil-A and smaller companies are competing for a limited supply of “clean-label” meats. In many cases, they’re being forced to get supplies from the other side of the globe or wait years for suppliers to catch up to the types of proteins consumers want today.

“The infrastructure just doesn’t exist today,” says Marion Gross, senior vice president of supply chain management at McDonald’s, the nation’s largest fast-food chain. “And no one can turn on a dime, especially when you do the type of volume we do.”

On a quest to improve the quality of its food and lure back customers who left long ago for competitors perceived to have higher food quality, Oak Brook-based McDonald’s is overhauling a portion of its supply chain. It plans to begin using hogs raised outside of gestation crates, eggs from cage-free chickens and chicken not containing antibiotics used to treat humans. On Oct. 19, the company said it also will begin serving sustainable beef in some areas next year.

But the systemwide changes won’t begin to take effect in the United States until 2017, and they won’t be finished until 2025, because of McDonald’s huge size.

U.S. meat suppliers, knowing they’re missing an opportunity, are investing millions of dollars to change farming practices and acquire “natural” brands to fill growing demand. But change takes time.

The primary factor driving deals “is the pursuit of growth and moving into markets where the growth is,” says Heather Jones, a BB&T analyst based in Richmond, Va. “It’s completely being driven by the consumer, and these companies realize it is way cheaper to buy than it is to build this on your own.”

Big meat producers like Austin, Minn.-based Hormel Foods, which in May agreed to buy Applegate Farms for $775 million, and Salisbury, Md.-based Perdue Farms, which bought Natural Food Holdings and its Niman Ranch brand in September for an undisclosed price, are augmenting their portfolios with branded organic and natural products primarily to compete better at retail, where consumers make decisions based on the label.

The takeovers also should help big meat processors learn from the upstarts and apply the lessons throughout their mass-market-sized operations. Randy Day, president of Perdue Foods, the food division of Perdue Farms, says the acquisition of Chipotle’s pork supplier, Niman Ranch, will help his company continue “a slow, thoughtful” expansion into antibiotic-free pork without compromising what made Niman successful in the first place.

Hardees and sister burger chain Carl’s Jr. had to look outside the U.S. to Australia to find enough steroid-free, antibiotic-free, grass-fed beef to supply its 3,000 U.S. restaurants for an unexpected hit. Its “all-natural” quarter-pound burger performed so well in limited tests that the chains are keeping it on menus indefinitely. The sandwich, which retails for $1.50 more than a conventionally sourced burger, has been the company’s best-selling new beef product over the past two years, says Brad Haley, chief marketing officer for Carl’s Jr. and Hardees, subsidiaries of CKE Restaurants of Carpinteria, Calif.
“Earlier generations were more concerned about counting calories, and this generation is more concerned about counting chemicals,” Haley says. “And this is not a surprise to our suppliers. They’re getting asked by everybody for this, but we just couldn’t get enough in the U.S. to meet our volume demands.”

DEMAND GROWS

Roti Mediterranean Grill, a Chicago-based fast-casual chain with 21 restaurants, likewise tapped Australian and South American cattle for dishes that will showcase the grass-fed, pasture-raised beef its customers have come to expect, CEO Carl Segal says.

“People absolutely want it,” he says. “There’s such a tight supply in the U.S. right now. Until the big producers realize there’s more and more demand for (natural meat) we’re still going to (have) tight supply, which is going to keep pricing very high. It’s frustrating.”

Market share for organic or natural chicken, beef and pork remains small. Aside from antibiotic-free chicken, which is 6.5 percent of the total chicken market by pounds, no other natural or organic meat holds more than 3.6 percent of its category, according to data from Chicago-based market research firm IRI/FreshLook.

But while analysts say it’s unlikely the majority of consumers will pay hefty premiums for grass-fed beef or chickens raised without antibiotics—supermarket prices of such products sometimes are nearly double those of factory-farmed meat—sales are outpacing conventional products by as much as a factor of six, the IRI data show. And they might have increased even faster if more supplies were available, analysts say.

“It’s going to take time for the farming and (agriculture) community to produce as much organic and antibiotic-free product as demand dictates,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a Chicago-based market research firm.

And demand is growing. Subway wants to convert to chicken raised without antibiotics next year and eliminate antibiotics from all meat within 10 years. Chick-fil-A plans to sell only chicken that is entirely free of antibiotics within four years. Earlier this year, Wal-Mart Stores asked its meat and egg suppliers to curb their use of antibiotics and provide animals with more humane living conditions. Perhaps wisely, it didn’t set a deadline.