Snacks & Candy

The New Meat Snack: Hybrid Flavors and Plant-Based Proteins

Innovation and new products target a new consumer
Krave & Chef's Cut jerky
Photographs courtesy of Krave Pure Foods

CHICAGO — Blame—or credit—home baking for contributing to the retail fortunes of packaged snacks during the pandemic. As meat snacks saw more than 5% growth in convenience stores, snack bars declined double digits.

So, what gives?

“One interesting hypothesis during COVID-19 was that as more people started to bake more at home, they began using ingredients such as fruits, nuts, oats and grains—all found in snack-bar formulations,” said Sally Lyons Wyatt, executive vice president and practice leader, client insights, for Chicago-based IRI. In short, people received their “snack bar” intake while baking breads and desserts. That translated to a win for meat snacks and other salty varieties, as consumers sought taste and formulation diversity.

But that’s just one element of the sales trends. A crazy quilt of developments contributed to the rise and fall of various snack categories throughout 2020. During the pandemic, utility and construction workers who couldn’t work remotely sought out meat snacks for their high protein benefits.

Others saw value in plant-based, grass-fed, spicy and hybrid flavor combinations. Meanwhile, on-the-go workers who once reached for morning breakfast bars were now working remotely, and habits shifted accordingly.

Convenience retailers benefited by providing consumers with quick and safe shopping environments.

“Think about where consumers are shopping now. It’s paramount for convenience retailers to see that as consumers consolidated their shopping trips,” said Jeff Wong, vice president of marketing, Country Archer Provisions, which in 2020 launched Zero Sugar Beef Jerky in partnership with chef Will Horowitz to push the envelope on artisanal innovation.

During the 52-week period ending Dec. 27, across the c-store channel, dried meat snacks continued a sustained growth trajectory by expanding dollar sales 5.3% (to a $1.74 billion market) and units 0.7% from same-period 2019, according to IRI data. “All other” dried meat snacks (a $1 billion market) grew 5.5% and units 1.6%.

The top five suppliers were Conagra, which saw 8.8% dollar growth for both Slim Jim and Duke’s brands; Link Snacks; Frito-Lay; Old Wisconsin Food Products; and Thasani. Consumers also recognized value in private-label meat snacks, which grew dollars a robust 43% during the year period.

Private label or branded, expanding new users is top of mind with suppliers.

“We have made a concerted effort to appeal to shoppers outside the conventional male meat-snack consumer,” said Wong of Country Archer. “Our data shows that Gen Z, millennials and even older and affluent consumers are helping to grow the base.”

Tim Jones, director of category management and customer development for Kent, Wash.-based Oberto Brands, said brands in the Oberto portfolio are designed to offer unique attributes to a diverse consumer base.

From a gender standpoint, female meat snack consumers—“closet users” to this point, according to Jones—broadly seek the same attributes that males do, he said. Jones said the Oberto brand strategy is innovating across demographics so Gen Z consumers can gravitate to Takis, flagship Oberto can draw in those seeking better-for-you qualities, Cattleman’s Cut (the top Oberto brand in c-stores by dollar performance) can reach blue-collar males and Cave Man Meat Snack can direct its marketing to those seeking keto-friendly ingredients.

Jack Link’s also leaned into a sugar-free offer, launching a Zero Sugar line in 2019.

“Consumers have been asking us for a no-sugar option, and … we’re proud to meet that demand with an option that’s still an excellent source of protein and tastes just as good as our original flavors,” said Tom “TD” Dixon, chief marketing officer at Jack Link’s. “This new SKU will drive significant category growth with goal-oriented shoppers looking to trade a sweet treat for a meat treat.”

Sonoma, Calif.-based Krave Pure Foods, powered by Krave Jerky and Chef ’s Cut offerings, has established a synergy between the two to widen the user tent, plus fill the market basket as a single buyer might be inclined to buy both during one shopping occasion.

“The Krave brand is slightly more female-skewed and also appeals to a younger millennial, young-family consumer,” said Rusti Porter, chief marketing officer for Krave Pure Foods. “From its inception, Krave has always focused on making a jerky product that would bring more women into the category.” Krave will debut a SKU this year that caters specifically to women.

Chef ’s Cut consumers are more often “male and unapologetically carnivorous, looking for the true trade-up from gas station jerky,” Porter said. “Chef ’s Cut makes sure we address those expectations with a complete lineup of flavor-forward meat snacks.”

From the pandemic’s emergence last winter, c-stores invested more resources in labor and keeping shoppers safe, which led to less emphasis on merchandising campaigns supporting meat snacks, according to Jones of Oberto. That’s bound to change for 2021.

“Retailers did more of the basics to oversee this category—and some actually canceled campaigns we originally lined up for the channel,” said Jones.

This year, retailers will see additional opportunity around the merchandising of larger-size packages above the standard 3-ounce meat stick. Partners such as Oberto are eager to work with retailers to reset the meat snack and jerky department.

“C-stores that placed an emphasis on standard sizes should be ready to invest in larger metal fixtures and racks configured for the ‘XL’ packages,” Jones said.

Country Archer is eager to expand on this opportunity in 2021 with the debut of its one-third pound, zero-sugar, grass-fed offering.

“There’s an economic component on the value proposition, where even with a higher price, there is additional value per ounce,” said Wong. “Consumption behaviors see more people working at home. Many are watching TV with a big bag of jerky rather than a single-serve.”

An 8-ounce package remains the largest dollar driver for Oberto, which recently introduced a 12-ounce sausage that Jones said is “doing fantastic.”

“There have been big shifts in consumer buying habits,” said Porter of Krave. “This includes using online channels more and buying large quantities of shelf-stable products during less frequent trips to the grocery store. This is forcing brands to pivot, ramp up production and find ways to keeps stores stocked.” Going forward, the two package formats will vie for share of stomach.

“I think in the first half of the year, people’s mobility will still be limited, but as the year progresses I see the dynamic changing,” she said. “Both larger and standard-size meat snacks will become an interesting consumer decision.”

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