One benefit of living just outside San Francisco is that this is definitely Foodie Heaven. Anyone who loves food can just spend days wallowing in the variety, the freshness, the quality and the innovation – in ingredients, in restaurants, in service models, you name it. From Alice Waters to Thomas Keller to the brilliantly talented folks just getting their start in food trucks & pop-ups, San Francisco and its environs are one of the best places in the world to cook and eat.
Each winter, just as I start to get a teensy bit weary of the crucifers dominating the farmers’ market, the Winter Fancy Food Show comes to town. No need to plan any meals during this trade show. Over 320,000 square feet of exhibit space means you really have to pace yourself.
But I don’t go to the Fancy Food Show to eat. Well, OK I do (it’s fun to imagine the looks on readers’ faces), but that’s really the secondary benefit. My main purpose is to check out the new products & hunt for trends. Many manufacturers introduce products here that aren’t yet on retail shelves, so you get a sneak peek at what’s ahead. This is not to say that I advocate trend chasing. I actually believe that that companies caught up in “follow-copy-repeat” behaviors do their brands more harm than good. Analyzing trends can, however, provide insight as to how consumers’ need states are shifting, and inspire smart companies to determine how to leverage their own brand equities to meet those needs ahead of their competition.
So here are some of the tidbits I found interesting at this year’s show:
Though there seemed to be fewer beverage exhibitors than I remember from past years, this is one category where there really was some product news. Key sub-themes in this category:
- Low Sugar – I’m delighted to report that sodas, juices, waters and non-dairy milks were all featuring less sweetener, lower calories and more natural sweeteners (I will not engage in the debate over the relative good and evil of various sweeteners in a marketing blog). Obviously the best low-cal beverage is good old tap water, but I’m glad to finally see beverage offerings that aren’t loaded with sugar. Guilt-free guzzles include: Steaz® zero calorie sparkling green tea, Bruce Cost 66 unfiltered ginger ale and Califia Farms® Unsweetened Pure Almond Milk.
- Creative Flavors – Continuing what we’ve seen for the past few years, sodas are featuring more exotic fruits (blood orange, guava, soursop), but beverages both carbonated and not are now infused with herbs and florals (Belvoir Elderflower Presse, Fever Tree Mediterranean Tonic Water), surprising combinations (Wild Poppy™ Plum Licorice and Peach Vanilla, Victoria’s Kitchen™ Almond Water in Mint Licorice and Vanilla Rose) and even savory blends (Numi’s Savory Tea™ comes in flavors such as Fennel Spice and Carrot Curry).
- Functional Favors – Functional beverages, those offering any number of health and wellness benefits, seem to be taking hold. On a recent trip to Whole Foods I noted the breadth of SKUs in the cold case. It’s a tricky game to play; staying on top of regulations re health claims, educating potential (skeptical) consumers on the benefits, standing out in a crowded category. If this show is any indication, there are a slew of entrepreneurs jumping into this space. A variety of cold-pressed juices, shots, and waters have been enhanced with super fruits, caffeine alternatives and probiotics.
It will be interesting to watch which are quite literally “flavor of the month” and which become more mainstream. Some of the brands hoping to do your health a favor: Gogee™, Runa®, and The Republic of Tea®. Said Republic has perhaps the best branded functional series in the tea world with their Be Well Red® and Be Active® blends.
Savor the Savory
Perhaps connected to the trend of abandoning sugar, we are finally starting to see some innovation on the savory (as opposed to sweet) side of life. I already mentioned Numi’s Savory Tea™. I also saw a wider variety of chips than I’ve ever seen, made from all sorts of alternatives to wheat flour – lentils, garbanzos, quinoa, and every vegetable you can slice and bake.
My favorite chips were Wild California™ Crisps, made with Sonoma grape flour and an aim to source 100% of their ingredients from the Golden State. I love Lesley Stowe’s raincoast crisps®. These new crisps have a similar flavor profile, just much thinner and lighter (which translates immediately in my head to fewer calories, but that falls apart if I eat a whole bag).
Apparently I’m not the only person addicted to truffles, because the funky fungus appeared in everything from popcorn to jam to ketchup. But the savory food version of Jennifer Lawrence (fresh, spunky and spicy) is Sriracha, which I’ve always loved in my Thai peanut sauce but now appears in bloody mary mix, hummus and even chocolate!
At the Natural Products Expo, we’re used to seeing a plethora of companies touting the sustainability of their ingredients and packaging, their fair trade policies and the causes they support. Those things, almost more than the products they sell, define the business they’re in. That’s not typically the case at Fancy Food, but it seemed to be a rising theme. Notably, it was less about in-your-face “green badging” than it was a matter of fact statement of values and business practices; a smart approach as claim-cynical Millennials reach the age of maximum purchasing power. Boulder-based Hope Foods shines with innovative spins on hummus (flavors like Thai Coconut Curry and Green Chile Lime would turn a boring veggie platter into memorable crudite), lentil dips and chocolate spreads (think the decadence of Nutella in a product that’s low calorie, low glycemic, organic, dairy and gluten free!). Their tagline, “live differently. honestly. boldly.” is indicative of the values and business practices by which their brand lives. Aforementioned Runa® and Kuli Kuli have a mission bigger than selling product. Both companies, inspired by the founders’ experiences working in developing countries, want to bring the health benefits of their products to customers while creating economic opportunity for indigenous farmers.
A Renewed Focus on Innovation? Not Yet.
Unfortunately, my biggest takeaway is that there wasn’t as much innovation as I expected. I was hopeful, given promising economic indicators and buzz about increasing project and hiring activity, that companies had finally resumed their investment in product innovation and we would see some of the results. Perhaps it’s too soon, or perhaps companies are continuing to play very conservatively. I saw some very interesting new flavors in familiar products, but little in the way of real breakthrough innovation.
Kudos to the companies mentioned above, who are leading the way. It’s perhaps no coincidence that most of the interesting products are coming from entrepreneurs. Is it simply that they have everything to gain and less to lose than the larger companies? The past several years have seen so many small companies with heart purchased by larger conglomerates. Is this how the big guys do innovation now? They let the little guys take all the risk and just buy those companies once they’re successful? Perhaps it’s only natural that the “most special” products in the specialty category are coming from smaller, more specialized companies? I’m not sure of the answers, but will be watching over the coming months to see how it plays out.
I work with companies that want to plan for strategic innovation, grounded in consumer insights, that fuels their business strategies and inspires growth. Contact me if you’d like a fresh look at your innovation processes.