Better Bites

1/1/2013

Snacks shift from center store to the produce aisle, with heart-healthy results.

Never before has the quality and nutritional value of our snacks mattered more. What used to be the occasional treat has become the norm as Americans increasingly forgo the family meal in favor of noshing around the clock.

"All in all, snacking is happening more often than meals, and has grown to define much of the way we eat," note market researchers at the Bellevue, Wash.-based Hartman Group.

A recent Hartman Group newsletter on healthy eating revealed that when adults eat, 46 percent of the time they're alone. While that number climbs to 51 percent when the eating occasion is a snack, a rather surprising 40 percent of all adult meals are consumed in solitude.

The problem, say researchers, is that when we eat alone, we tend not to savor what we're eating and we consume too much of it.

Snacking Goes Nuts

Snacking on processed foods may have ushered us down the path to epidemic obesity, but healthful, produce-based snacking could be just the thing to lead the nation back to good health.

Last June, The New York Times reported that the $22 billion salty snack market is losing sales. "Frito-Lay's traditional business — Doritos, Tostitos, Lay's, Rold Gold and other middle-market brands — has slowed as consumer tastes migrate to nuts, dried fruits and snacks made from whole grains," the Times wrote.

As consumers increasingly embrace nuts' heart-healthy message, suppliers like Mariani Nut Co. see continued growth opportunities for fresh nuts in the produce department. "Consumers who are frequent nut eaters have told us they are making an effort to eat more nuts," says Matt Mariani, who oversees sales and marketing for the Winters, Calif.-based company. "Infrequent nut eaters said they are making a conscious decision to add them to their diet."

While Mariani says its whole, natural almonds are its best seller, its line of snack-friendly flavored California almonds, including Honey Roasted, Roasted and Salted, and Wasabi Soy, are increasing in popularity.

Roche Bros., a family-owned independent supermarket chain based in Wellesley Hills, Mass., recently introduced gravity-feed bulk sections to the produce departments of a few of its higher-end stores. They've been well received, says Anthony Lundy, produce manager of the Wellesley store, which features a bulk section of approximately 24 feet stocked with 50 to 60 items.

"The bulk foods do very well. It's definitely a convenience factor, and people want something more personalized," Lundy says of his customers' ability to buy a few handfuls of yogurt-covered pretzels, nuts or dried fruit to eat on the go.

Branding Better Health

While health-conscious Americans are indeed gravitating to better-for-you snacks, there's no denying the claim that conventional salty fare has on the nation's taste buds at large.

"How can produce compete with the marketing budget of a company like Frito-Lay?" asks Barbara Ruhs, a corporate dietitian for Chandler, Ariz.-based Bashas'. She finds the billions spent on snack food, soda and restaurant marketing each year, versus the millions spent on the marketing of produce, a disquieting disparity.

"If you show a kid a box of cereal with the Little Mermaid on it, that child is going to go for the cereal, not a plain old boring apple," says Ruhs, coordinator of the upcoming 2013 Oldways Supermarket Dietitian Leadership Symposium and a PG columnist.

That's why Ruhs is thrilled to see Disney licensing its brand to produce suppliers. "I think it's ingenious," she says, adding that studies have proved that kids are not only attracted to produce when it's branded with a character like Mickey or one of his friends, but also that they'll actually eat the produce marketed that way.

The Disney-themed Ready Pac Cool Cuts line, for example, includes kid-inspired mini meals that include vegetables and/or fruit in every pack of snack combinations, including Veggies, Chicken and Pretzels; Turkey, Crackers and Cheese; Pizza Bites; and Apples, Ham and Yogurt.

"It's wonderful to see the trend of suppliers introducing healthy produce snacks that are branded to attract consumers," says Ruhs. "For example, Grimmway's rebranded 'Biggest Loser' carrots — they're going to grab the attention of anyone thinking about weight loss."

Cut to Convenience

As a corporate dietitian, Ruhs is consulted regularly on what can be done to get people to eat more fruits and vegetables. "Making fruits and vegetables more convenient is an important start," she insists. For example, at Bashas' stores, chilled bins of cut fruit and mixed melon are stationed close to the cash registers, to maximize impulse sales.

Roche Bros. has enjoyed similar success with convenient pre-cut items. "When you're talking about produce, the less customers have to do, the better," Lundy says. The chain brought its cut-fruit program in-house a little more than a year ago, and Lundy says the effort has been a tremendous success. Branded items like the individual Del Monte refrigerated fruit cups are also resonating with customers, he notes.

Convenience is key, but so is giving consumers options. A category that began with baby carrots paired with ranch dressing has blossomed into a feast of fresh and convenient produce-based snack offerings. "Dips and sticks like the traditional carrot and ranch, plus carrots and hummus, and apples and caramel, are also selling well," observes Lundy. "They are really popular with parents shopping for kids' school lunches."

Innovative product introductions continually underscore the category's opportunities for growth. "Based on market research, we believe our customers want additional healthy, convenient snacking options," EuroFresh Farms EVP Mark Cassius says, pointing to the company's recently launched Redi Bites Snacking Cucumbers and Campari Sonoran Salsa Kit.

Snowflake, Ariz.-based EuroFresh describes the Snacking Cucumbers as seedless petite cukes with a non-bitter skin, sold in 8-ounce bags. The Campari Sonoran Salsa Kit pairs a 14-ounce container of cocktail tomatoes with a custom salsa packet that allows consumers to make preservative-and additive-free salsa.

Let Them Eat Produce

In her work for a chain of supermarkets with three concepts (Food City, Bashas' and AJ's Fine Foods), each with a unique shopper demographic, Ruhs has devoted years to getting consumers to eat their fruits and veggies.

"The most powerful way to get consumers to eat more produce is to have them try it," Ruhs asserts, noting that Bashas' will demo cut mango and then feature a recipe that can be made with it. "You wouldn't believe how many people have never tried mango. You can also put almost anything on a pizza and get people to eat it — mushrooms, broccoli, asparagus, you name it." Demos and sampling also help to reduce shrink, she adds.

Another effective way to get customers to eat more fruits and vegetables is to use produce as "add-ons to meals in the deli," suggests Ruhs. Something as simple as offering a sandwich, a drink and a piece of fruit for a set price can be a vehicle for getting more produce into a shopper's basket and diet. "They might not eat the fruit the first two times, but studies show that after the third time, they are eating the piece of fruit," she says.

Convenience that caters to the demographic of a particular store is also important. At Bashas' Food City stores, the strong Hispanic market enjoys the four kinds of fresh pico de gallo made daily, house-made guacamole, and the juice bar that makes fresh aqua fresca in a variety of tropical flavors.

Specialty stores like AJ's find success with more exotic and limited-availability offerings. The Grapery's Cotton Candy grapes and Grapple brand apples combining the flavor of Concord grapes with the crispness of a Washington apple are coveted the moment they hit stores. "When you offer fruit that tastes like cotton candy," says Ruhs, "you sell out of it almost immediately."

"The most powerful way to get consumers to eat more produce is to have them try it."

—Barbara Ruhs, Bashas'

Creating Snack Traction

How can supermarkets compete for a greater share of produce-based snack dollars? The Belleve, Wash.-based Hartman Group recommends the following five tips for food marketers in the fresh snack category:

  • Adapt or extend product lines to snacking occasions. For example, offer smaller portions of your store-branded cut fruit or crudités for on-the-go eating.
  • Innovate into snackable formats, such as on the go, at your desk, etc.
  • Build strategies to protect against losing customers to foodservice on snacking occasions.
  • Tap into the desire for higher-quality food experiences in snacking.
  • Offer snacks that win in the early-morning and late-night noshing occasions.
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