Craft Sodas, Meat Snacks, Burgers and More

Consumers seek out better-for-you offerings and more variety among multiple categories
two trending product categories: burgers and beverages

Health and variety continue to drive trends in the convenience-store and foodservice space.

Craft sodas, tea and meat snacks are seeing increased success among customers seeking healthier fare. While tea has long been deemed a good-for-you beverage, craft soda’s natural ingredients are contributing to piqued interest. And manufacturers of meat snacks have seen category growth as they highlight the benefits of protein.

Burgers are also on trend—but for reasons other than health. Several quick-service restaurants (QSRs) have added or offered limited-time offerings (LTOs) of bison burgers to appeal to consumers seeking more exotic options. Foodservice operators are also experimenting with smaller portion sizes as consumers embrace appetizers and side dishes as meals.

Read on for a deeper look into these latest trends.

Not Your Traditional CSD

Craft and natural sodas are showing promise in the carbonated-soft-drink (CSD) category as consumers steer away from traditional CSDs and seek better-for-you options.

While natural and craft are relatively new segments of the category, nearly three in five (57%) U.S. adults agree that CSDs made with natural ingredients are healthier than those made with artificial ingredients, according to Chicago-based Mintel. Fifty-seven percent of consumers also agree that craft sodas allow them to enjoy a unique type of nonalcohol beverage, with two-thirds (66%) of millennials in agreement.

“Craft carbonated soft drinks have the potential to pique interests similar to the craft-beer segment, offering consumers artisanal beverages that often support local communities and provide a complete taste experience through premium ingredients, unique flavors and small-batch quality,” says Elizabeth Sisel, beverage analyst for Mintel.

In June, PepsiCo announced plans to introduce a line of craft fountain sodas called “Stubborn Soda.” Earlier this year, Jones Soda launched a fountain program, offering a variety of classic Jones Soda flavors such as Berry Lemonade and Orange & Cream.

57% - Nearly three in five U.S. adults agree that CSDs made with natural ingredients are healthier than those made with artificial ingredients, according to Mintel.

Tea Picks Up Steam

Another beverage gaining momentum is tea. It’s holding its own against the onslaught of energy drinks and sports drinks: Dollar sales of canned and bottled tea were up 7.9% in 2014 from the previous year’s numbers, according to Chicago-based IRI.

“Tea is on trend lately due to its health benefits, range of flavors and versatility,” Anne Mills, consumer research manager for Chicago-based Technomic Inc., wrote in a September blog.

Lipton earlier this year launched Lipton Sparkling Iced Tea in lemon, peach and raspberry flavors, and Sparkling Ice rolled out a line of Sparkling Ice Teas in the same three flavors. Organic ready-to-drink teas such as Honest Tea are also trending, Mills said.

Tea is among the fastest-growing ingredients, in terms of operator incidence, in spirit-based beverages at the top 500 and emerging chains, growing 32% on menus from 2013 to 2015, Mills wrote.

The Power of Protein

The better-for-you concept is also fueling meat-snack category growth as manufacturers emphasize the health benefits of protein.

Nearly 15% of global meat snacks introduced in the 52 weeks ending April 2015 had protein claims, rising to more than 50% in the United States, according to Netherlands-based Food Ingredients First’s Innova Market Insights data.

“Even prior to the emergence of this enhanced interest in protein, the meat-snacks market was showing good growth globally,” says Lu Ann Williams, director of innovation for Innova Market Insights. “[It reflects] the rising demand for more substantial snacks suitable for eating on the go.”

Meat snacks are the fourth-largest savory-snacks category in the United States after potato chips, tortilla chips and nuts/trail mixes. Jerky-style products dominate the market, and aside from focusing on a healthier image, manufacturers are also offering more complex flavor options, particularly hot and spicy variants, often with an ethnic twist.

Similar to pizza and other fare, consumers are craving exotic burgers, a trend that should keep retailers on their toes. Bison burgers, for example, are appearing on several QSRs’ menus.

This summer, Fuddruckers introduced the Bison Chipotle Burger, while Kona Grill introduced a Bison Burger with Danish bleu cheese in January. Rock Bottom twice offered its Bison Prairie Burger as an LTO in 2014.

Rock Bottom last November introduced a BBQ Brisket Stuffed Burger: a beef patty filled with shredded beef brisket and served on a buttery grilled onion bun with smoked gouda, lettuce and tomato.

“The burger market in the United States is a multibillion-dollar business,” says Brad Bloom, vice president of sales and marketing for CHD Expert, a Chicago-based foodservice data and analytics firm. “As this landscape continues to expand, new opportunities for generating profitability begin to present themselves to manufacturers and suppliers.”

Small Meals Gain Momentum

Not all consumers want to fill up on a burger with toppings piled a mile high. Many are embracing appetizers and side dishes—so-called “left-of-menu” fare—as bona fide meals, presenting an opportunity for c-store foodservice operators to expand and develop a winning menu.

In today’s climate of customization, “a meal is what the diner says it is,” wrote Jackie Dulen Rodriguez, senior manager for Technomic, in a blog post. “Small plates and appetizers can appeal to those driven by a smaller appetite or a limited budget, or at off-peak times to create a dining opportunity that otherwise would be missed. When ordered in multiples, they can answer a desire for more variety or to share with companions.”

According to Technomic’s recent “Starters, Small Plates & Sides Consumer Trend” report, small plates have increased 80% on full-service-restaurant menus since 2013 (although only 18% of operators offer them).

Asian flavors in small plates grew 650% in the past two years, and Mexican flavors grew 320% on leading full-service-restaurant menus, Rodriguez wrote. She also pointed out that no less than 67% of consumers say high-quality/premium ingredients are important when choosing an appetizer, and one in three millennials agree that appetizers prepared tableside are higher in quality.