Meat Snacks Are Getting Hot

Major manufacturers are betting on bolder flavor profiles and textures to help appeal to adventurous and sophisticated palates, and health-conscious lifestyles.

By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor

There is nothing timid about Generations X or Y, especially when it involves their taste buds. And when it comes to flavors, the bigger, bolder, hotter and spicier the better, said David Sprinkle, publisher of Packaged Facts research. Until recently, most meat snack manufacturers have pretty much played it safe, relying on tried-and-true flavors and formats to drive sales.

And though a recent report from Chicago-based Mintel International shows traditional flavors are still the top sellers, purchased by 73% of meat snack consumers, a growing number of challengers are now hot on their trail. More than half of younger consumers (and a growing number of baby boomers) are reaching for teriyaki snacks, followed by smoked, peppered and hickory variations.

These out-of-the-box flavors are generally most favored by the 25-54-year-old age group. Mintel suggested that the willingness of so many consumers to push the flavor envelope offers a golden opportunity for retailers to move even more into the mainstream and cultivate a whole new generation of lifelong customers.

Fifteen or 20 years ago, meat snacks were anything but mainstream at Scott Zaremba’s Zarco 66 convenience stores. He attributes today’s category growth to several factors: more competition and innovation, appealing packaging and an increasingly health-conscious society.

Over the past eight years, the meat snack category in his stores has slowly evolved from around 2-4 linear feet to between 8-10 feet. “Many customers are choosing meat snacks because of their protein content; in fact, we display them close to the protein and energy bars,” said the president of the eight-unit, Kansas chain.

Wide Appeal

David Johnson, category manager for the Oklahoma City, 280-location Love’s Travel Stops & Country Stores chain, said that whether it is for the protein or as part of a weight loss program, a growing number of customers are coming to regard jerky as a healthful alternative.

Love’s stores have eight-foot sections dedicated to beef jerky and meat snacks products.

But that space is crowded with the deluge of new varieties that appear in the market each year. For example, Jack Link’s recently introduced a variety spiked with Cholula brand hot sauce. Playing on the popularity of its comical “Messin’ With Sasquatch” advertising campaign, the company also added a new “Furious” (super hot) stick and “Angry” (original) and “Zen” (teriyaki) steaks to its Big Snacks line.

Category leader Jack Link’s continues to make inroads with younger consumers with its MATADOR line, introduced in 2009 as “a bold snack brand for teens with an action-driven lifestyle.” The brand’s promotions are also action-oriented, such as the MATADOR F650 trucks that tour the country distributing samples.

Last year, Con Agra’s Slim Jim rolled out its Dare line of meat snacks in three heat levels—“Kinda Hot” (chili pepper), “Freakin’ Hot” (jalapeño) and “Really Freakin’ Hot” (habanero). A new Steakhouse Strips line, which the company describes as tender and moister than traditional meat snacks, comes in Carne Asada and Mesquite varieties.

Thanasi Foods, which said its meat snacks brands skew heavily male, hopes its growing Duke’s jerky brand will appeal to the female demographic as well. This would help boost sales at convenience stores. This is a challenge for all meat snack suppliers.

For example, in the Snack Food Association’s (SFA) 2012 State of the Industry report, Dan Skinner, Con Agra’s manager of public relations and social media, explained that Jack Link’s Dare and Steakhouse lines were developed “to appeal to slightly more sophisticated palates and a more mature audience.”

In 2011, Oberto Sausage Co. debuted a line of all-natural line products, a major selling point for today’s consumers. Last February, the company introduced an All-Natural Sweet Spicy Beef Jerky with chile flakes to satisfy their cravings for intense flavors. Thanasi Foods plans to join the all-natural movement across all of its Duke’s Smoked Meats SKUs by the end of this year.

Expanded Flavors

Category observers like Zaremba and Johnson predicted that co-branding with household-name partners, such as Jim Beam, would give meat snacks added cache. In addition to the bourbon giant, Duke’s also features products made with Kikkoman teriyaki sauce and Frank’s Red Hot barbecue sauce. Slim Jim has a jerky variety that touts its Tabasco ties.

National mainstream exposure through television commercials has amped up the awareness of meat snacks among consumers, the retailers said. But, noted Johnson, they are still primarily impulse items that must be merchandised in a highly visible location.

In the SFA report, Kap Pitarys, senior brand manager for Oberto Sausage Co., explained that 50% of jerky is purchased on impulse. Based on the observation that beer and soda are often bought along with jerky, she recommended that retailers consider bundling these items.

Pork rinds are still proving their crave-worthiness among consumers. Johnson pointed out that the snacks do so well at Love’s stores, the company has expanded its offerings over the last two years.

Over the past year, explained the SFA report, overall sales of these low-carb crunchies have leveled off, but producers such as Rich Rudolph, president of Rudolph Foods, insist that they remain “robust sellers,” particularly in convenience stores. While it may seem counterintuitive, pork rinds have been embraced by health-conscious, waist-watching consumers, including women.

Healthier Snack Option

Pork rinds’ halo of health comes from the fact that they are low in carbs, gluten-free, have 0% trans fat, are dairy-free and can be consumed by diabetics. Experts are quick to note that pork rinds have half the fat and calories and four times the protein of potato chips.

Pork rinds have long been a snack of choice in the U.S. West and Southeast, and are particularly popular among the Hispanic population. However, now, like jerky, the products are making their way into the mainstream with trendy new flavors and formats.

Hot and spicy and barbecue flavors are the hottest sellers for all the major brands, including Frito Lay, the biggest player with its Baken-Ets. Another familiar name among rind aficionados, Rudolph’s, has recently expanded its line to include chile and lime and salt and vinegar varieties. Another new innovation by Rudolph is a package that includes its own packet of Mexican hot sauce.

Manufacturers are also developing line extensions based on shape and texture. Snak King, for example, recently added a product called Cracklin’ Curls to its munchies mix. The difference between these and regular pork rinds is that Cracklin’ Curls are designed to have a larger surface area for a better spread of seasonings.

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