After more than a year of extreme fear and stress brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, which in turn fueled a period of exuberant snack indulgence, consumers are prioritizing health more than ever before. At grocery stores and at work, they are looking for better-for-you nourishment by scanning labels, noticing unfamiliar ingredients, and rejecting items loaded with sodium, sugar and fat – seeking as many health benefits as possible in every snack. As always, definitions of healthy vary widely, from paleo, keto and vegan to Mediterranean diets factoring into the mix.
The wellness trend was already long under way, but the pandemic has been a key driver behind the rise of health-aware snacking as many consumers seek to shed those unwanted pounds they put on during months of limited mobility and after snacking at greater frequency for comfort and small indulgence.
And when the pandemic established remote work and school as the norm, daily routines lost all routine. The regimen of three distinct meals a day became even more blurred, further amplifying a trend that had also taken shape before the pandemic. Snack food has increasingly replaced meals instead of being consumed in between them.
The pandemic has also inspired consumers to be more open to trying less-established brands as stay-at-home orders drove the masses to shop the internet, expanding their horizons beyond their routine favorites at brick-and-mortar stores. This movement has given emerging brands a lower barrier to entry.
Following a lull in innovation amid pandemic disruptions and shutdowns, manufacturers are repositioning to meet consumers as they reemerge with new products that balance enjoyment and indulgence, along with those that fit into more wellness-focused lifestyles.
The numbers speak for themselves that snacking for pure indulgence clearly holds its place in the mix. Chocolate sales at c-stores increased 8.5% to $2.76 billion for the 52 weeks, ended May 1, 2021, versus one year ago, according to NielsenIQ Retail Measurement Services, Total U.S. Convenience data. That’s up 4.15% from the end of 2020, when chocolate sales totaled $2.65 billion for the 52 weeks, ended Dec. 26, per Nielsen Total U.S. Convenience data.
Salty snack dollar sales for the past year grew 7.2%, according to Nielsen data, for the 52 weeks ended May 29, 2021, and sweet snacks dollar sales saw a 4.8% increase for the same period
PIM Brands Inc. (formerly Promotion In Motion), founded in 1979, has a long history of leading and inspiring consumer snacking trends and continually innovating to meet changing demands as one of America’s leading snack and confection manufacturers and one of the 50 largest global candy companies.
Based in Park Ridge, NJ, PIM Brands provides a range of confections, from better-for-you to nostalgic indulgence for vending, office coffee service and micro markets. They include Welch’s Fruit Snacks, Welch’s Fruit n’ Yogurt Snacks, Welch’s Juicefuls Juicy Fruit Snacks, Original Gummi Factory Gummi and Sour Candies, along with Original Gummi FunMix, Sour Jacks Sour Candy, Sunmaid Chocolate Raisins and Nuclear Sqworms Sour Neon Gummi Worms.
LOOK BACK, PLAN AHEAD
“We saw fundamental changes in snacking at the onset and throughout the pandemic. While all consumers increased their snacking during COVID, Gen-Z and millennials did so at a rapid pace,” said PIM Brands vice-president of sales Jeff Scudillo. “These two segments snack on average five-plus times a day, compared with 2.7 for all consumers.”
Welch’s Fruit Snacks is appealing to millennial and Gen-X consumers, who have children in the household and are looking for fun snacks the whole family can enjoy, while some of PIM’s gummi brands, like Sour Jacks Sour Candy, appeal to an older Gen-Z consumer.
PIM Brands had several successful product launches in 2021, including the national introduction of Welch’s Juicefuls Juicy Fruit Snacks, a line of fruit snacks with a juice-filled center that are available in three flavor varieties: Mixed Fruit, Berry Blast and Island Splash. Original Gummi FunMix launched new Tropical Fish Party and Swirl’z Party, while Sour Jacks brought to market a fun new mix of Assorted Wedge Sour Candies.
For 2022, PIM will be introducing Welch’s Zero Sugar Fruity Bites in three flavor varieties and Welch’s Fruit Snacks Summer Fruits, a refreshing, seasonally inspired flavor.
Snacking for enjoyment was the top reason consumers cited for snacking during the pandemic.
“It provided a needed a break, a respite from the boredom or an emotional lift,” Scudillo noted. “The incidence of consuming indulgent snacks increased. We also saw large increase in needing to buy snacks for the whole family, as the lockdowns and mobility restrictions caused the home to become the center of life -- schooling, work, entertainment, cooking meals.”
Over the past 18 months, PIM saw strong dollar sales increases across all its categories of snacking segments – wellness, permissible indulgence, true indulgence and treats (chocolate and nonchocolate candy). Gum and mints, meanwhile, experienced a steep decline as routines changed and social interactions became more limited, diminishing the demand for breath refreshment.
Likewise, according to Scudillo, snacking at home increased as mobility restrictions negatively impacted away-from-home snacking, with, as expected, sharp declines in snack purchases from vending machines, movie theaters, airports and travel centers, rest stops and theme parks.
PIM’s snacking sales exploded on ecommerce, with the channel gaining share from brick-and-mortar stores. Grocery, value and club stores also performed well.
“Snacking occurred throughout the day, but morning and evening are now growing the fastest,” Scudillo noted. “In c-stores, snack purchases shifted to later in the day during the pandemic, as typical morning routines, such as in-person schooling and work commutes were disrupted.”
PIM Brands expects continued momentum behind snacking in 2021 and 2022, as category tailwinds coming out of COVID will outpace headwinds. According to Scudillo, the tailwinds include an increase in the snacking trend to continue with both incidence and frequency growing, continued need for convenient snacks and mobility growth.
PIM anticipates continuing momentum from both indulgent and nostalgic snacking and increasing interest in better-for-you products. The candymaker also expects continued interest among Gen-Z and millennials and a return of sales in away-from-home channels most impacted by COVID, including vending, movie theaters, airport terminals and amusement parks.
“Many behaviors established during COVID will stick as the world slowly reopens,” the PIM vice president added. That includes stocking-up behavior, buying larger sizes, e-commerce, increased snacking frequency and continued momentum in the grocery, value and club channels
“With increased mobility and the home construction boom, we are seeing foot traffic and trips grow within the convenience channel,” Scudillo said. “This will continue as more workers head back to the office and schools reopen in the fall. The level of uncertainty is still high, given the unpredictability of COVID and the variants. Different regions will be impacted disproportionately due to the varying vaccination rates and case counts.”
Meat and cheese snacks are riding a wave of popularity among consumers seeking high-protein, low-carb meal replacements, which has helped Oberto Specialty Meats, founded in 1918 in Kent, WA, to become a growing fixture in vending machines and micro markets.
For micro markets, its newest offering is 4-oz. Oberto Fresh Refrigerated Chicken Skewers in Barbeque, Buffalo and Teriyaki varieties, which have a 45-day refrigerated shelf life, and 2.5-oz. Charcuterie meat and cheese pairings in Parma Salame & Smoked Provolone Cheese; Parma Salame & Fontinello Cheese; and Calabrese Salame & Smoked Provolone Cheese varieties.
These join the iconic Oberto brand 1.5-oz. to 3.25-oz. bags of Beef Jerky in Original, Teriyaki and Peppered flavors. Other vending items are Cattleman’s Cut brand of .75-oz. to 3-oz. Beef Jerky and Sausage Sticks and Lowrey’s 1.75-oz. Original and Spicy Bacon Curls. Rounding out the lineup are Bavarian Landjaeger and Lil Landjaeger brand peg bag products in 0.75-oz. to 3-oz. packages suited for large and small vending spirals and micro markets.
“The new Oberto products the trade should consider offering their consumers are the Oberto Fresh Refrigerated Chicken Skewers and Cattleman’s Cut Takis Fuego Sticks, which are highly successful in all other channels,” said Oberto Specialty Meats foodservice director Don Lear. “Oberto Fresh and jerky and stick sales have increased substantially as consumer demand for snacking products increased throughout the pandemic.”
RIDING THE WAVE
This consumer demand has continued in 2021 as consumers drive growth in the total snack category and especially protein snacks, Lear said.
“Products with longer shelf life are seemingly rebounding more quickly than other products, since many B&I locations do not have all their employees back and operators want to control their stale outs,” Lear observed. “So, some operators offer Oberto Fresh Refrigerated Chicken Skewers, with a 45-day shelf life once slacked out, instead of, for example, salads with much less shelf life.”
Not surprisingly, where B&I locations are having their employees return to their offices, Oberto has seen encouraging consumer demand in the convenience services sector. “So, the Southeast and Southwest are leading; although, operators throughout America have select locations doing very well,” Lear was pleased to report.
Like many manufacturers, Oberto has been forced to raise its prices due to the dramatic increase in beef, lean hog and chicken input costs, which consumers are also seeing in grocery stores for household staples like ground beef, pork chops, steak and chicken.
Lear observed that when operators increase prices on protein products, unit demand dips for a short time, then returns closely to where it was. “Consumers are experiencing and getting accustomed to widespread price increases for not only food products but also services,” Lear observed.
Fiorucci Foods of Colonial Heights, VA, has been in the specialty meat business since the 1850s. It introduced its Paninos, meat enrobed around cheese, in the early 2000s, creating a whole new specialty meat category that is taking off for micro market and vending operators.
There are five varieties in 1.5-oz. see-through packages that showcase the two Paninos inside. The newest edition is Genoa Salami and Mozzarella, which is especially popular on the East Coast, according to Fiorucci Foods’ Stephen Docherty. Prosciutto and Mozzarella is the No. 1 Panino, followed by Hard Salami and Mozzarella, Pepperoni and Mozzarella and Hard Salami and Pepper Jack Cheese, respectively.
Paninos are packed in an 8-ct. box (two boxes to a case), which doubles as an instant product display. They have a 90-day refrigerated shelf life. The product’s success in convenience and grocery stores has the Fiorucci Panino poised for increased growth in the micro market channel, according to Docherty, adding that it has seen “huge sales” in Hudson News locations at airports across the country. Keto and Mediterranean diets are helping to drive the success of the Fiorucci Panino.
“Just like people in the workplace, travelers are busy, they are on the go, and sometimes they don’t necessarily just want to grab a bag of chips or some fast food, but instead, they want to grab something that might be a little bit more aligned with their dietary needs, or they’re just looking for something that’s a little bit more protein-rich and very simple, easy to grab and enjoy,” Docherty said.
PLANT-BASED AND VEGAN GO MAINSTREAM
Opposite meat snacks, plant-based snacks are on the rise and moving from niche to mainstream. Snacklins, founded in 2015 and headquartered in Rockville, MD, is targeting this niche and building its presence in micro markets and vending with its crunchy, airy, low-calorie crisps made from yuca, mushrooms and onions.
Snacklins’ 0.9-oz. snack size bags come in four flavors: Barbeque, Chesapeake Bay, Nacho and Teriyaki. Each bag contains 90 calories and is non-GMO, kosher, vegan, gluten-free, grain-free, dairy-free, soy-free and nut-free. It retails for $2 to $2.50 a bag.
The snack-maker recently launched its first-ever limited-edition flavor, Cinnamon Churro. “It was such a huge success that we are working on adding it to our lineup full time,” according to Snacklins’ Jeremy Sherman.
Snacklins has an especially strong following among women 30 to 50 years old, vegans and consumers on low-calorie diets. Sherman said that a pronounced change in consumer snacking behavior resulting from the pandemic is that more consumers were willing to purchase all types of foods online, which drove a huge uptick in sales on its website and online channels.
“There is certainly a new normal where consumers are more comfortable buying online,” Sherman observed. “However, consumers are definitely returning to grocery stores and other physical locations where foods and snacks are sold. Most snack sales still happen offline.”
Most of Snacklins’ demand comes from the Northeast, mid-Atlantic and West Coast, regions where its current grocery footprints are concentrated, but plans are in the works to expand its reach.
Many plant-based foods are also vegan – free of all animal products – which is another category that has moved to the mainstream. Fat Badger Bakery started baking vegan cookies in 2018 following its origins under a different name a few years earlier, baking dairy-free and kosher cookies.
“We quickly switched the focus of the company to vegan as we saw that with a few tweaks to our recipes we could appeal to a much larger audience in the vegan and plant-based market,” said Fat Badger’s Gretchen Dossa. “Our goal was and has remained to bake cookies using great ingredients that taste delicious and homemade. Fat Badger Bakery’s goal is to bake the best cookie that you have ever had, not just the best vegan cookie.”
Fat Badger Bakery is located in Pipersville, PA, a small town in Bucks County, and remains a small company operating out of its own building. “Having a small, established staff and our own manufacturing facilities were extremely helpful during COVID,” Dossa said. “We were able to quickly pivot the way we did business and establish safety and cleaning policies.”
VENDING AND MICRO MARKET NEWCOMER
Fat Badger is just starting to enter the micro market and vending space with eight of its 1.5 -oz. single-serve, individually wrapped cookies. The bakery makes its soft cookies with a simple selection of high-quality ingredients, which are clean and transparent, without preservatives; the shelf life is extended with refrigeration or freezing without compromising taste. All of the cookies are Non-GMO Project certified, and vegan and kosher certified.
“Our vegan cookies are a ‘healthier’ alternative but are still a delicious and satisfying dessert as opposed to a cookie that tastes more like a cereal bar,” Dossa pointed out. “They contain organic flaxseed which aids in fiber and a blend of healthy oils that have no trans fats or cholesterol. Our ingredients are selected with care from the non-sulfite coconut and Callebaut chocolate to the red raspberry topping that is simply dried and powdered fresh raspberries.”
The cookies wholesale for 87¢ apiece and have a suggested retail price of $1.76 a cookie. Like most suppliers, Fat Badger has had difficulty sourcing some of its ingredients quickly and faced price increases and shipping time failures but has been able to hold off on increasing its prices.
Dossa noted that sales of vegan and plant-based food rose 27% in 2020, growing at twice the rate of the total retail food market. “Our sales reflected that growth as people that were not necessarily vegan became first-time purchasers of plant-based food,” she commented. “Healthier foods and clean ingredients labels were also important to our customers, as well as the safety of foods that are individually packaged.”
Fat Badger witnessed increases in sales from grab-and-go and delivery restaurants looking for a sealed and safe dessert option, as well as subscription meal services that saw a boon in sales as people sought healthy, well-rounded meals that could be delivered to their homes.
“I think people’s attitudes toward food and how they purchase that arose during the pandemic will have lasting effects,” Dossa predicted. “Food delivery may decrease over time, but I think that people will still look for the convenience aspects of food shopping. I also think that people will continue to look for an increased variety of high-quality-ingredient items and plant-based items to be available wherever they shop and not just in Whole Foods and health food stores.”
Fat Badger’s biggest following is among females ages 24 to 34. Geographically, retail sales demand for Fat Badger products is highest on the East and West Coasts, specifically in New York, California, Washington, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Washington, DC, and Florida, which tend to set the trends for the rest of the country.
“We do have increasing retail interest in states that are not known for having a high percentage of vegans,” Dossa observed. “This could be because they have less plant-based options or because plant-based diets are becoming more mainstream.”
The Fat Badger official added that more people are experimenting with and incorporating vegan meals into their diets for health reasons – without making the plunge into becoming fully vegan.
“Consumers are increasingly willing to pay a premium for food that has healthier ingredients, is non-GMO certified and vegan for ethical reasons,” Dossa noted. “There is an understanding that healthy, clean food that may be vegan and non-GMO certified comes as a premium and they are willing to pay a little extra for that.”