The convergence of trends in snacking, protein, portability, bold flavors, less processing and “real food” have been a boon for meat snacks, which have evolved far beyond their historic image as a few pegs at the c-store or truck stop checkout.
“Consumers seem to be actively seeking out meat snacks as alternatives to chips [and other salty snacks] as a healthier option for snacking and convenient sources of protein,” affirms Dave Savidge, director of meat and seafood at Wooster, Ohio-based grocery store chain Buehler’s.
Amid a total snack food category exceeding $13 billion, meat snacks generated more than $383 million in sales for the year ending Dec. 19, 2015, according to data from Schaumburg, Ill.-based Nielsen. Their 14.5 percent growth in sales for that period was second only to popped popcorn, which grew more than 16 percent to just more than $399 million, while much larger salty snack categories like potato chips and pretzels were flat.
“In our stores, we’ve seen category sales more than double in the last year,” Savidge says. “We expect continued growth as new items are introduced and innovation comes into the category.”
While the nutrition community might be torn on whether to classify meat snacks as a health food (see sidebar on page 67), product manufacturers are jumping on that bandwagon.
To be sure, Tony Dunning, EVP of customer development at Minong, Wis.-based Jack Link’s, referred to his employer as a “protein snack company” during an interview with Progressive Grocer at the Food Marketing Institute’s Midwinter Conference in January. “Our core focal point originally was meat snacks and still is meat snacks today, but we’re evolving into many different proteins,” Dunning told Joan Driggs, PG’s editorial director.
Dunning also dispelled a myth about the key audience for meat snacks, assumed by many to be predominantly men, as suggested by Jack Link’s male-dominated, Sasquatch-themed ad campaign.
“A lot of people think the core audience for beef jerky is 80 percent or 90 percent male and 10 percent or 20 percent female, when in fact it’s actually 55 percent male, 45 percent female, because protein is in big demand right now,” Dunning said. “There’s a lot of tailwinds around protein, and we’re really proud of the fact that we’ve led that charge. We’ve found great success through innovation and continuing to make sure we deliver on quality and fun, which is what the brand is really all about.”
That innovation has resulted in what you might call the softer side of Jack Link’s: Lorissa’s Kitchen, a new line of meat snacks made with grass-fed beef, sustainably raised pork and antibiotic-free chicken, and free of gluten, MSG and nitrates.
The brand is named for the wife of President and CEO Troy Link. “She’s had a big hand in developing this brand and bringing it to market, and we’re really excited about it,” Dunning explained. “There really hasn’t been anything to cater to the female consumer in our space.”
According to Dunning, Lorissa’s Kitchen, which includes flavors such as Szechwan Peppercorn Beef and Ginger Teriyaki Chicken, targets specific consumer segments. “It really caters to the ‘Natural Nourisher,’ as far as getting the right thing into her body, the way she wants to shop for herself,” he said, “and there’s really fun flavors that allow her to extend beyond the typical flavors you see in our category.”
To be sure, jerky varieties have moved well beyond the basics.
The newest brands are leveraging desires for authentic flavors and minimal processing.
“People are looking for less mass-produced snacks and foods,” says Greg O’Neal, VP of marketing for Boulder, Colo.-based Duke’s Smoked Meats. “What happened in craft beer is happening in meat snacks. We’ve found that the creativity and small-batch care we put into our meats really resonates with existing and new meat snack category buyers.”
Additionally, O’Neal notes that “more people want real-food snacks. They are reading labels to make sure that ingredients are simple and recognizable. Healthier, more premium meat snacks offer consumers this benefit.”
The latest products from Duke’s feature ingredients like whole roasted Hatch green chiles, diced Serrano peppers, vine-ripened tomatoes, real lime juice and freshly chopped cilantro. “Our Smoked Shorty Sausages are growing rapidly in popularity,” O’Neal says. “We are expanding our lineup to include new flavors as well as new proteins like chicken. By using higher-quality real ingredients and a no-shortcut process, we are able to get loads of flavor into our Smoked Shorty Sausages without using much sugar at all.”
Similarly, Naples, Fla.-based Chef ’s Cut Real Jerky claims to “use only premium cuts of steak and white breast meat,” while Lawless Jerky, hailing from Brooklyn, N.Y., is “hand-crafted, American-made jerky from 100 percent grass-fed beef and pork, free of added hormones, antibiotics or preservatives,” in flavors like Sweet Sriracha, Aloha Teriyaki, Pho, Japanese Curry and BBQ Spare Rib. And Kent, Wash.-based Oberto Brands offers its All Natural line with “clean, simple ingredients.”
Bart Silvestro, CEO of Chef’s Cut, says jerky “is becoming not only an acceptable source of protein, but a recommended one. Some articles have even described jerky as ‘the new, more convenient Greek yogurt.’”
O’Neal agrees. “More consumers are open to eating meat, and eating meat on more occasions as snacks, creating a natural tailwind that benefits the meat snacks category,” he asserts. “Additionally, over the last five years, the category has widened and deepened to include more creative and flavorful alternatives to the conventional jerky and sausage stick brands on the shelf. From flavors, formats and functionality, the meat snacks category has a broader appeal than ever before.” Further, as snacking supplants traditional mealtimes, “meat-based protein snacks are the perfect meal replacement,” O’Neal says.
The folks at Oberto see the same opportunities. “The meat snack category is positioned to be a huge benefactor of the current health trends,” says Stephen O’Hare, the company’s senior brand manager. “America’s increasing interest in lean protein and reducing carbs puts jerky in a fantastic position for growth. Couple the health-and-wellness trends with the increase in snacking, especially among Millennials, and it clearly explains the double-digit growth that the category has experienced.”
The challenge for meat snack manufacturers, according to O’Hare, is that “the past reputation of jerky can muddle the message. Often, both consumers and retailers miss the link of health and wellness to lean protein-packed jerky.” Positioning meat snacks as “a fantastic fuel for physically active adults will help overcome these lingering perceptions,” he says.
How should grocers be taking advantage of the meat snack boom?
“The more progressive they are in recognizing the industry buzz and the consumer demands about specific categories, the more successful they will be,” Chef’s Cut’s Silvestro says. “Millennials do not shop today in a traditional manner, so it’s important for grocers to make sure they have secondary placement of hot items to encourage the impulse purchase.”
O’Neal, of Duke’s, recommends a three-part strategy: grow offerings to include a variety of protein types, flavors and formats; support merchandising of good/better/best in the category, to reach a range of shoppers and demonstrate evolution beyond “old conventional jerky and sausages”; and cross-merchandise meat snacks with protein bars, deli, produce, craft beer and gourmet cheese to drive awareness and usage occasion.
“Grocery could capture a larger share — and, more than likely, expand overall sales of meat snacks — with consistent visible placement, such as jerky at the checkstand, expanded set sizes and in-store category signage,” Oberto’s O’Hare says. “Jerky, like most in the snack segment, is an impulse purchase, yet its location and shelf space allocation in many grocery chains does not reflect this, or the relative size.”
Oberto’s focus this year is “to further push the expansion of usage occasions beyond the road trip and the traditional jerky consumer” with multipacks, O’Hare explains. “Each bag has six 0.75-ounce bags that further align with consumer snacking trends of on-the-go and portion control.”
Oberto is also building promotions around professional athletes such as NFL stars Richard Sherman and Rob Gronkowski and MLB All-Star Hunter Pence to intensify its successful marketing efforts centered on the active-lifestyle demographic.
A New Generation
The evolution of meat snacks has spawned new brands that are reinventing the category with jerky-snack bar hybrids that appeal to younger demographics and health-conscious consumers.
Austin, Texas-based Epic, recently acquired by General Mills, makes organic meat bars filled with nuts and dried fruit, for instance.
“The next evolution of the meat snack category is the incorporation of different species of animals,” asserts Taylor Collins, Epic’s co-founder. “Right now, every meat snacks company on the planet makes a beef product and a chicken product. There is a lack of creativity here, and consumers are demanding variety with their protein options. We are launching a handful of exciting new products in 2016 that will fill these needs.”
Collins adds, “Companies that are committed to purchasing high-quality animals that are humanely raised and fed diets that are consistent with the evolution of the species are the brands best positioned to benefit in the meat snack category.”
Epic works with grocery retailers to boost the visibility of meat snacks by creating innovative items “that are disrupting stagnant categories of the store,” Collins explains. “Epic produces meat snacks that can be merchandised in over five different areas of the store. This gives our product more merchandising flexibility and introduces meat-based foods into new areas of the store.”
La Farge, Wis.-based Organic Prairie, the meat brand produced by the farmer-owned Organic Valley dairy cooperative, last fall launched Mighty Bar, which it bills as the first certified-organic, 100 percent grass-fed beef meat snack.
Available in Cranberry & Sunflower Seed and Bacon & Apple flavors, the shelf-stable snack delivers 8 grams of protein and 3.5 grams of fat per bar, and includes unsweetened dried fruits and a “minimum amount of sugar,” for a glycemic index of less than 1.
And Lafayette, Calif.-based Caveman Foods makes the Chicken Primal Bar, a Paleo-inspired (unprocessed nuts, seeds, fruit, vegetables and lean meats) meat-based protein bar in Smoked Jalapeño, Blueberry Pepper and Sweet Cherry varieties, each offering 18 grams of protein, 3 grams or less of fat, and 120 to 150 calories per bar.
“There’s a reason why our meat products are only made with chicken,” the brand’s website explains. “It’s a complete protein with a high PER (protein efficiency ratio), … a protein’s ability to promote growth and development of lean muscle.… Chicken is a lean, mean muscle-building protein with lots of amino acids, little to no fat and is easily digestible.”
Today and Tomorrow
What’s next for meat snacks?
“We see a lot of evolution in the types of proteins being used and the unique flavor profiles companies are using,” says Silvestro, of Chef’s Cut. “In order to keep up, we are all going to have to focus on trends and what consumers’ preferences are in regard to jerky, but also to their general food tastes. … As always, when you are talking about food, it all starts with great taste.”
O’Neal, of Duke’s, says that as expectations of existing category buyers expand and new category buyers enter, “we think people will be looking for new formats that are creative but familiar, and higher levels of meat quality. We also think people will be more and more aware of the amount of sugar in their meat snacks.”
While Oberto’s O’Hare expects exotic flavor expansion to drive interest and some growth among the “jerky curious” and fringe users, “we believe the demand for lean protein and reduced carbs is not going away and traditional flavors will remain a significant majority of sales.”
As such, O’Hare says, real growth of meat snacks will occur as the product begins to pop up in unexpected places and in different formats. “Grocers will best take advantage of this by making it clear that they are a purveyor of meat snacks,” he says, “with prominent jerky placement and displays that truly reflect the category size of not just today, but tomorrow as well.”
“What happened in craft beer is happening in meat snacks. We’ve found that the creativity and small-batch care we put into our meats really resonates with existing and new meat snack category buyers.”
—Greg O’Neal, Duke’s Smoked Meats
“Millennials do not shop today in a traditional manner, so it’s important for grocers to make sure they have secondary placement of hot items to encourage the impulse purchase.”
—Bart Silvestro, Chef’s Cut Real Jerky