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SNACK CATEGORY STUMBLES, HANDHELDS HOLD THEIR OWN

Manufacturers say ethnic flavors, better-for-you options, and package sizes for every budget will help get the category growing again. And don’t forget the air fryer instructions!

Pitaya Foods’ new function-forward, ready- to-eat Smoothie Bowls are a popular snack among Millennials and Gen Z.

While handheld entrees registered dollar (-1.7%) and unit (-3.8%) losses that mirror declines for the frozen department as a whole, snacks and apps fell short of the mark during the 12 weeks ended Dec. 3. Thanks to moderating inflation, dollar sales were down just 3.3% to $809.85 million in the face of a 6.9% drop in units, according to Chicago-based market research firm Circana. Volumes fell even further (-8.3%), suggesting that manufacturers (especially on the private label side) are downsizing package counts
and/or cash-strapped consumers are opting for smaller pack sizes with lower price points.

SMALL SERVINGS BIG IN 2024

But don’t count the category out just yet! Conagra’s just-released report “The Future of Frozen Food 2024” lists bites and mini portions as one of the five biggest trends in the department. “Small servings are surging in popularity,” notes the report, which claims consumers gobbled up more than $1.1 billion in frozen bites and minis last year alone. Drivers of the trend include portion control, convenience, variety and the ability to easily share food at social gatherings. But Americans’ shifting consumption patterns also play a role. In fact, “Nearly half of U.S. consumers now eat three to more snacks daily, up 8% in the past two years,” says the report, citing Circana findings.

‘Small servings are surging in popularity.’

Many frozen snacks and apps can also be prepared in air fryers — another of the five biggest trends in the frozen department, according to Conagra — and that’s providing a boost as well. Currently, says the report, 63% of households own an air fryer, an increase of 27 percentage points since 2020. Among the newest air fryer-friendly products in the marketplace is Salisbury, Md.-based Perdue’s new Air Fryer Ready Crispy Wings. Billed as a category first, the item is specially formulated for air frying and comes in three flavors: Roasted, Hot N’ Spicy and Lemon Pepper. But air fryer compatibility isn’t the only thing the snacks and apps category has going for it.

Another of Conagra’s top frozen department trends is global cuisine, and snacks and apps is the category where consumers are most likely to find their favorite ethnic flavors. Asian-inspired frozen apps are especially popular, according to the report, with dump- lings (+378%), wontons (+376%), gyoza (+264%), shumai (+248%), rangoon (+70%), potstickers (+55%) and egg rolls (+52%) all registering significant dollar growth in the past four years. But both Indian and Cajun cuisines are expected to take off in 2024, highlighting continued demand for both spicy and “swicy” (sweet and spicy) ethnic flavors.

NEW IN ASIAN APPS

Among the newest Asian apps to hit the freezers is Ontario, Calif.-based Ajinomoto Foods North America’s new Japanese-Style Hane Gyoza. Currently available exclusively at select Costco locations in the Northwest, the authentic Japanese-style dumplings are easy to cook without oil and are unlike other gyoza or potstickers in U.S. supermarkets and restaurants, says the company.

While authenticity is an important attribute, some consumers prefer their Asian food more “Americanized,” making ethnic-inspired options a popular choice as well. For example, Iron Chef Ming Tsai created better-for-you “bings” (a type of Japanese crepe) in such all-American flavors as Cheeseburger, Ham & Cheese, Buffalo Chicken and Supreme Pizza. While original MingsBings are plant-based, the Boston-based company recently launched real meat- and chicken-filled versions. Like their meatless predecessors, the newcomers are gluten- and nut-free, allergen-friendly and air fryer-ready. And they’re still made with at least 20% vegetables, spotlighting an- other category trend: hidden veggies.

Los Angeles-based Caulipower is also doing its part to boost consumers’ vegetable consumption. Described as the only baked, never fried cauliflower-coated pizza bites in the marketplace, its new Pizza Bites come in both Four Cheese and Uncured Pepperoni. The better-for-you snacks have 14% fewer calories, 22% less fat and 29% less cholesterol than the top frozen pizza bites, “and they’re the only brand in the category to deliver on the taste and texture of classic pizza bites,” says the company.

Caulipower also launched All Natural Chicken Bites recently. Coated in cauliflower and chickpea flour (another category first), the product is available in both Classic and Dill flavors, the latter of which offers a better-for-you twist on a fast food restaurant favorite.

St. Simons Island, Ga.-based Farm Rich is also jumping on the chicken bites bandwagon with its new Thai Style Chili Chicken Bites. The third addition to the brand’s Chicken Bites lineup, the new flavor also taps into the sweet heat trend. Farm Rich also rolled out Breaded Goat Cheese Bites and Stuffed Mini Sweet Peppers recently. Available now at Walmart, all three snacks can be pre- pared in a conventional oven, toaster oven or air fryer.

VARIETY KEY TO CONTINUED GROWTH

While Asian apps and chicken bites are grabbing headlines, manufacturers say Mexican-inspired snacks and handhelds remain a consumer favorite. In fact, says Dave Warner, senior brand manager at Dinuba, Calif.-based Ruiz Foods, maker of the El Monterey brand, Mexican food is overtaking Italian as the most loved ethnic food in America. Three-quarters of consumers say they eat Mexican at least once a month, he reports, but only a third purchase frozen Mexican snacks and apps each year. “So the upside potential in frozen is enormous.”

In order to build excitement with more flavor variety, the company recently debuted both El Monterey Chili Cheese Chimichangas and El Monterey Signature Loaded Nacho Chimichangas, says Warner. “We see a lot of duplication of flavors on shelf from multiple brands,” he explains. But that space should be used to increase flavor variety, which is key to growing the category.

Ruiz Foods adds two new chimichangas to its El Monterey lineup, giving consumers more flavor variety.

El Monterey’s next new product rollout is a 38-count value pack of its El Monterey Crunchy Southwest Taquitos. “Due to inflationary pressures, consumers are seeking more value,” says
Warner. “And because trips are down, we can maximize our share of wallet with each trip with value packs.” That said, he emphasizes the importance of multiple pack sizes that meet the needs of every consumer, including those looking for smaller packages with the lowest price points.

Indeed, both Farm Rich and Ajinomoto are reportedly launching small packs of some of their best-sellers. While Farm Rich already offers Mozzarella Sticks in small packs, it’s adding Jalapeno Poppers, Cheese Curds, Crispy Dill Pickles and Pizza Crunchers to the 8- to 10-ounce lineup. Mean- while, Ajinomoto will launch trial-size packages of its Ling Ling Potstickers (Chicken & Vegetable, new Beef Bulgogi and new Spicy Chicken flavors).

In addition to offering a variety of flavors and package sizes, manufacturers say it’s important to offer different quality tiers as well. “One of the biggest opportunities for retailers is to have the right assortment of mainstream and premium frozen snacks, appetizers and handhelds,” says Angi Rassi, chief marketing officer at Red’s All Natural, Franklin, Tenn. “There are two distinct consumers shopping in frozen, and the premium consumer tends to be incremental to the category and have a larger basket size. So having the right brands that meet their need for clean labels and premium ingredients that taste great from trusted sources is critical to capturing that incremental growth.”

Red’s All Natural expands its premium burrito collection with three new varieties.

For those consumers, Red’s is expanding its burritos lineup this spring with three new SKUs that “build on proven strong turners in the category with incremental premium proteins,” says Rassi. The newcomers include Steak Cilantro & Lime Burrito, which builds on the popularity of the company’s existing Organic Chicken Cilantro & Lime Burrito (the No. 1 turner in many supermarkets); Organic Black Bean & Cheese Burrito (for bean burrito lovers seeking an organic option); and Chicken Maple Sausage Breakfast Burrito (since chicken maple sausage is the No. 1 flavor profile in the premium better-for-you sausage category).

SNACKING ON SMOOTHIE BOWLS

While most frozen snacks and apps are ready-to-heat, San Diego-based Pitaya Foods recently rolled out a line of ready-to-eat Organic Smoothie Bowls. Though traditionally consumed at breakfast, the new bowls are often used as snacks by the brand’s Millennial and Gen Z shoppers, reports senior vp of sales Jason Mosley. “Over half of our customers are snacking two to four times or more per day — indexing higher than consumers of competing products in snacking frequency,” he explains.

The healthy bowls’ function-forward, whole food ingredients are one reason consumers often reach for them between meals. For example, says Mosley, the Recover bowl is a popular post-workout snack, while the Energy bowl is an excellent afternoon pick-me-up. Other available varieties include Clarity, Immunity and Inner Health. Consumers also appreciate that the thaw-and-serve Smoothie Bowls don’t require a micro- wave and are ready to eat in five to 10 minutes — not an hour like some competing products. As a result, says Mosley, “This product hits on many different trends: convenience, snacking, better-for-you, organic, and an accelerating consumer shift towards functional ingredients.”

He adds that Millennials and Gen Z don’t always shop the frozen department, “So this is a great way for retailers to get shoppers in the frozen aisle.”

Denise Leathers

Denise Leathers

Denise is the Editorial Director for Frozen & Refrigerated Buyer.

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