January 25, 2016
Typically we speak with experts or food entrepreneurs in this podcast series, but in today’s podcast it’s just me. About a week ago, I returned from one of the biggest industry trade shows of the year – the San Francisco Fancy Food Show that is put on by the Specialty Food Association – and I wanted to use today’s podcast to report out about what I saw, learned, and heard when it comes to specialty food.
While this trade show focuses on packaged food products, I think it’s important to note that food trends tend to cross business models. So if you’re listening and are a small restaurateur or caterer, a mobile food business owner, or sell wedding cakes directly to consumers, for example, I think you’ll find a few interesting nuggets in this podcast that you can use in your own business and in your marketing.
To set the stage, in case you’ve never been to the show, the event takes place in the Moscone Convention Center in the heart of downtown San Francisco. It is an immense show with two entire convention halls filled with booths from product purveyors from around the world. My goal, as an attendee, was to look for new trends and keep an ear open for interesting conversations. What were buyers talking about at the show? What sorts of questions were being asked of the exhibitors? Because all of that points to what the consumer is asking and caring out when it comes to food products.
Ultimately, I walked away with 7 key findings from the show between what I noticed and in talking to many of the attendees themselves. Some of these findings are continuations on previous years’ themes and some are new this year. So let’s get started:
- First up, Spicy Is Proving It Has Sticking Power: This is one of those trends that’s been around for a few years but at this point the fact that it is still so prominent points to the idea that perhaps it’s no longer actually a trend and more of a new way of eating. Spice is in everything these days and it’s just getting hotter. There was one exhibitor whose spice in their marinade could be smelled from a few booths over. The lesson here, don’t be afraid to experiment with spice in your products as it may be something your customers love. In the meantime, please pass the chocolate-covered jalapenos!
- Everything Is In A Chip: It’s no secret that Americans love their chips and it’s a hypercompetitive category, but now there’s nothing you won’t find in a chip. Chickpea chips – check. Lentil chips – check. Pasta chips, yes, chips made from pasta – check. Falafel chips – check. You get the idea. If it can be made into a chip, it’s being done. And a large part of the messaging behind those products is that it offers a healthier version to everyone’s favorite snack food.
- Which brings me to the next big trend and that is that snakes are back. This fits with the trends in how consumers are eating but it’s always interesting to talk with a big mass brand and hear how they’re focusing on snack packaging in 2016, even if that means producing small bags of their product and packaging multiple small bags into a bigger container for grocery and mass stores. Consumers are on the go 24×7 and so they want their food to go with them. This is a trend that food producers of all types can tap into – think about how you can make your food more convenient for people on the move. This may mean putting a bigger push behind grab-and-go items from your restaurant, as an example, or figuring out a way to offer delivery.
- Another big takeaway from this yea’s show – Plants Rule. Literally, plants were being highlighted this year in everything from drinks to pasta to cookies. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of meat jerky companies there too but plants – and their role as ingredients in products – were definitely front and center more so than in years’ past. In large part this is being driven by consumers’ desire to ‘eat healthier’ and incorporate more vegetables into their diets. The big key is that the most successful products, it appeared, are those that tapped into both the ease of production – by that I mean they aren’t complicated to prepare and offer up hearty servings of plants.
- Artificial Is Out! Pretty much every exhibitors sales and marketing pitch at the show started with a description of how they either have never used artificial ingredients or how they’ve cleaned up their ingredient list to remove them. Even when unprompted, this was almost always one of the first selling points that was brought up. Whereas in years past there was more emphasis on where the product was produced, whether it was ‘handcrafted’ as an example, the focus de jour is on getting the artificial out and, equally as important, letting the customer know about it!
- Sixth on my list of takeaways from the show is the overwhelming focus currently on how and where ingredients are sourced. Never before have I seen so many signs about fair trade ingredients, never before have I heard so much about the local farmers and dairies that product producers source their ingredients from. Never before have I heard so much about the safety mechanisms that are in place at certain production facilities – even for small businesses. In the past the focus was definitely on flavor and packaging, and those are still forefront, but safety of the supply chain and safety of the production were front and center like never before. My guess is that this pressure – from consumers, from buyers, and from the FDA via the newly revised Food Safety and Modernization Act – will only intensify in the next 2-3 years. If you haven’t started to do so already, you need to look at your supply chain and look at your processes and identify where there may be weaknesses. As a note, in our next podcast we’ll be talking about the Food Safety and Modernization Act with a food lawyer in more detail.
- Lastly, my favorite word heard at the show was ‘flexitarian.’ An exhibitor explained to me how they’re finding that many of their customers are ‘flexitarians’ which means, people who subscribe to a specific way of eating the majority of the time – be it vegetarian or gluten-free – but allow themselves to indulge from time to time on foods that don’t fall within those boundaries. The more I thought on this phrase the more and more relevant it seemed to the majority of specialty food consumers these days. Assuming there’s no outstanding food allergy or health concern, consumers are often choosing to eat with certain boundaries on their diet – mainly out of trying to be healthier – but they are open to allowing changes and indulgences when and as the situation dictates. This is an important consideration as you think about how you market your business. Don’t health-wash your products for example, if what you create is full of butter and sugar. Own what you are and what you do because there are a large number of flexitarian consumers who are willing to step outside their normal eating habits from time to time and enjoy something different.
One last takeaway for you, a bonus if you will, – and this is specifically for product producers who either do or who are hoping to sell wholesale, the biggest question I heard buyers ask exhibitors at this show was around how a product would fit into their shelf space. Packaging is a crucial piece of the puzzle and it’s a piece that buyers are very concerned about. They want a product that tastes great but that also looks great on the shelf. Equally as important, is a product that fits onto the shelf. Remember, stores don’t have additional shelf space just because they find a great new product. I’ve said it before and it’s still true – for your product to go onto the shelf, someone elses’ has to come off. There’s a multi-part podcast coming up in a few weeks where we talk to a packaging expert but it’s something important to keep in mind between now and then too!
I want to just take a moment and remind you that ultimately, while these trends and takeaways are interesting, you have to stay true to what the mission of your company is and what you know about your target market. Don’t try to simply chase trends but instead, evaluate everything in light of what you want to achieve with your business. Trends can and do change so quickly that simply trying to chase them, if it’s not core to your business in the first place, rarely ends well.
I hope you enjoyed today’s podcast. If you’re not yet aware, you can find this podcast series and subscribe to it on iTunes under Small Food Business. I would also love it if you could leave a review as that helps other food entrepreneurs find the podcast in the iTunes system.
In the next podcast, we’ll be talking with Lauren Handel, an attorney who specializes in food law, about some of the legal considerations small food businesses need to keep in mind.
In the meantime, as always, I invite you to join the Small Food Business community at smallfoodbiz.com. Small Food Business is also on Facebook at facebook.com/smallfoodbiz and we’re on a host of other social media channels as well. I look forward to connecting with you.
For more Small Food Business Podcasts, click here.
- What Buyer Look For At Tradeshows
- Food Trends Spotted At The 2015 Fancy Food Show
- 2016 Plate Of The Union Report