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THE SIDES HAVE IT

Clean labels, comfort foods and celebrity chefs are driving growth, especially in the side dishes subcategory.

Strong Roots’ new plant-based Creamy Mac will hit freezers at Whole Foods Market this month.

Frozen plain vegetable units fell 4.7% during the 12 weeks ended Dec. 3, and dollar sales dropped 2.1% to $718.12 million across channels, reports Chicago-based market research firm Circana. During that same period, however, frozen side dishes posted a 15.2% increase in unit sales, which drove a 7.3% dollar gain (to $199.31 million). Meanwhile, frozen potatoes — especially air fryer-friendly plain potatoes — continue their torrid growth, registering an inflation-driven 23.3% dollar gain (to $787.98 million) and 2.1% unit gain.

“Vegetables can be a side dish, a snack, or a recipe ingredient,” says Joe Spivak, Birds Eye brand manager at Chicago-based Conagra. “And with a variety of dynamic flavors, both brands and retailers are meeting consumer demand for new ways to enjoy vegetables.”

In an effort to grab consumers’ attention — and dollars — they’re pulling out all the stops. The newest offerings run the gamut from restaurant-inspired to traditional comfort foods (especially those created by celebrities and celebrity chefs), with plenty of clean labels and innovative messaging and packaging.

LABELS THAT MATTER

“The key aspect retailers need to focus on is how to make veggies and sides one of the most interesting aisles in the supermarket,” says Samuel Dennigan, CEO of Dublin, Ireland-based Strong Roots, whose Creamy Mac will hit freezers at Whole Foods Market in February, after racking up strong sales at ShopRite since June. “There’s an opportunity for retailers to rethink the assortment, relevance and overall product quality to be more inventive.”

For many brands, he says, the addition of climate footprint labels is key to their evolving brand positioning. “Carbon labeling introduces a new level of transparency and responsibility [so consumers can] better understand their environmental impact,” he says. “We believe that carbon labeling will be more important than calorie information in the years to come.”

In a similar move, Stahlbush Island Farms, Corvallis, Ore., is adding organic certification. “We’ve already made this change in Canada and will be rolling it out in the U.S. in the next year,” says Erin Burt, marketing manager. “We’ve been certified sustainable since 1997, but we realize consumers are more familiar with organic certification, so we are happy to add it.”

Four new grain and veggie blends from Daily Harvest help meet growing demand for clean, protein-rich, plant-based sides.

Laura Morris, associate marketing director at Bayonne, N.J.-based Dorot Gardens, which offers frozen peeled and chopped herbs and garlic in pre-portioned trays, also sees a “discernible uptick” in the emphasis on product certifications, with non-GMO certification in particular gaining traction in the frozen vegetable space.

“Consumers are becoming increasingly conscientious about the origin and quality of their food. Certifications provide a tangible way for them to make informed choices aligned with their values,” she says. Like all Dorot products, the newest addition to the company’s lineup, flash-frozen pre-portioned Crushed Turmeric, is all-natural, raw and vegan. The non-GMO collection contains no preservatives or artificial flavors, and all products are gluten-, dairy-, nut- and soy-free.

But manufacturers say that what’s in their food is just as important as what’s not. “According to Whole Foods’ 2024 food trend predictions, protein-forward products with mushrooms, walnuts, tempeh and legumes are on the rise,” reports Annie Streit, chief sales officer at New York-based Daily Harvest, whose products are now available at retail.

She adds, “Demand for plant-based products continues to grow, with an emerging focus on foods that go ‘back to basics.’ [That means] shorter ingredient lists and ingredients that people recognize and understand, like real fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes versus more processed ingredients found in popular plant-based meat analogs.”

To meet that demand, Daily Harvest has added gluten-, nut- and dairy-free grain and vegetable blends to its lineup: Lemon Quinoa + Butternut Squash, Curried Brown Rice + Green Chickpea, Cilantro Brown Rice + Black Bean, and Sage Wild Rice + Cauliflower.

Another player in the clean label side dish space, Watsonville, Calif.-based Eathos Foods LLC, reports increased demand for its new Organic Rainbow Carrot & Sweet Potato Blend, which will be available at Costco Northeast and BJ’s Wholesale Club in April.

EATING OUT…AT HOME

As much as consumers like eating out, it’s not always feasible — or affordable. As a result, reports Kristen Thompson, senior vp and president of the frozen and vegetables unit at Parsippany, N.J.-based B&G Foods, she is seeing consumers gravitate toward the company’s chef-inspired Green Giant Restaurant Style Sides.

‘We know that consumers are looking for cost-effective ways to be creative in the kitchen and perhaps skip some of their usual dining out because of economic strain.’

“We know that consumers are looking for cost-effective ways to be creative in the kitchen and perhaps skip some of their usual dining out because of economic strain,” she explains. So it recently rolled out four new Restaurant Style Sides: Spinach Florentine, Brown Rice & Quinoa with Parmesan & Romano Sauce; Spring Veggies, Brown Rice & Quinoa with Garlic Basil Sauce; Roasted Root Vegetables with Garlic & Thyme; and Asparagus, Roasted Red Potatoes & Onions. For the younger set, the company recently debuted Green Giant Dino Veggie Tots. Later this year, says Thompson, it will launch Mini Veggie Tots as well.

Consumers seeking a more elevated at-home dining experience can also find options — particularly mac and cheese — from a variety of celebrity chefs. Guy Fieri’s new Flavortown lineup includes Sloppy Joe Mac & Cheese, Andrew Zimmern’s collection offers Pulled Pork Mac and Cheese, and the By Chef Ramsay range features Four Cheese Macaroni Bake as well as a Mushroom Risotto. All are available now exclusively at Walmart.

For consumers looking to elevate meals at home, Green Giant adds four new chef-inspired dishes to its Restaurant Style Sides collection.

Another famous face entering the side dish aisle is Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. Created in partnership with Vernon, Calif.-based Golden West Food Group, the new Travis Kelce’s Kitchen lineup offers a wide range of side dishes, including Bacon Mac & Cheese, BBQ Baked Beans with Burnt Ends, Brisket Burnt Ends with Mac & Cheese and BBQ Baked Beans with Sausage.
In addition, Dallas-based TGI Friday’s is adding Whiskey-Glazed Pulled Pork Mac & Cheese to its lineup.

While mac and cheese may be the ultimate comfort food, manufacturers are rolling out some other tempting choices as well. For example, Conagra is adding four new vegetable-based casserole side dishes under its Marie Callender’s brand: Green Bean Casserole, Cheddar Broccoli Casserole, Sweet Corn Casserole and Cheesy Potato Casserole. And in the refrigerated department, Reser’s Fine Foods, Beaverton, Ore., is introducing a signature line of Main St. Bistro baked potatoes: Twice Baked Signature Potatoes and Twice Baked Double Cheese Potatoes.

ON-POINT PACKAGING SELLS

Dr. Praeger’s, Saddle Brook, N.J., is rolling out new packaging to promote its new tagline: Tasty Meets Veggie. “We are modernizing our brand across all touchpoints — bolder and taste-driven packaging, website, digital/social — to both pay homage to our 30-year history and stay relevant for the next wave of consumers and innovation,” says Jenna Behrer, vp of marketing and innovation.

New items include Dr. Praeger’s Veggie Fries (like traditional fries, but with a full serving of veggies) and Dr. Praeger’s Littles, which also include a full serving of vegetables. “For retailers,” says Behrer, “these are an opportunity to [expand] veggie-forward options for kids and trade shoppers up to a premium, delicious, nutritious option they’re sure to love.”

Marianne Weaver

Marianne Weaver

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