Beefing up on meat snacks

Innovation and a growing appetite for protein are boosting meat snack sales

It wasn’t long
ago that beef jerky and other meat snacks were relegated to the gas station, purchased primarily by road trippers looking for a last-ditch energy fix. But thanks to an overhaul of ingredients and flavours, more and more consumers are giving traditional savoury snacks the boot in favour of protein-packed meat options—and they’re turning to the grocery store to find them.

Isabel Morales, consumer insights manager at Nielsen, says grocery stores and mass merchants have seen a whopping 15% dollar growth and 18% volume growth in the meat snacks category in the last year alone in Canada. “This means consumers are putting more of these snack types in their baskets,” she says.

Analysts note that jerky products and other meat snacks target a growing demand for low-carb, high-quality protein that’s quick and portable. “This is a real growth opportunity, and from what I’m hearing the interest is there,” says Joel Gregoire, associate director, food & drink at Mintel. He’s not surprised by the stats. “Meat snacks tick off a lot of those boxes when it comes to what consumers are looking for in snacks.”

Morales says the dollars in this category are fuelled by consumers between the ages of 35 to 54 with household incomes of at least $70K. “The presence of kids seems to be a driver of purchases as well, as consumers with kids between six and 12 are driving volume,” she says. Going forward, she says innovations in pack sizes and meat snack flavours will be key for continued growth.

“More and more, we see manufacturers that are making an effort to appeal to a broader audience,” says Morales. “Calling out health and environmental attributes seems to be getting the message across, especially to consumers who are invested in their particular diet preferences.”

With an increasing number of meat snacks boasting grass-fed, lean cuts of beef, it’s not only consumers who are taking notice. “In the past, we wouldn’t have featured these products in our merchandising plans because of the health aspect, but when we listed Lorissa’s Kitchen , for example, and compared it to chips and other snacks, it has big health benefits,” says Mitch Yeatman, category manager at Ontario’s Longo’s. “Customers are reading labels and realizing this isn’t the ‘dirty’ meat that they perceived it to be.”

With ongoing health concerns around sugar, consumers are also looking at “minimally processed, wholesome snacks that fill them up and don’t make them think of sweets,” says Amar Johal, vice-president of sales at B.C.-based Freybe, which has been producing meat snacks for Canadians since 1955. “We as manufacturers in the meat snack area are looking at lower-sodium lower-nitrate options based on this growing health movement,” he says.

Given consumer demand, some grocers are even taking production into their own hands. At Red Barn Market’s central location in Victoria, B.C., there are three large smokers running 24/7 to produce all-natural, primarily island-sourced meat products for its seven stores. The grocer makes eight varieties of pepperoni alone and recently introduced a whole-muscle jerky.

Authenticity of ingredients is a key factor consumers are asking for, adds Stephanie Egan, marketing manager at Waterloo, Ont.-based Piller’s Fine Foods. “Piller’s still smokes its meat over natural hardwood fires and is free of allergens— and we call that out on the package.”

Innovation in packaging is another selling feature. In 2016, Piller’s launched its Salami Chips to appeal to snackers on the go. “They come in a resealable pouch and take the work out of salami because there’s no slicing,” says Egan. Similarly, the brand’s longer/skinnier Salami Whips appeal to kids looking for a fun snack that’s easier to chew than traditional jerky.

Flavour innovation has been key to category growth as well. Companies like New York-based Three Jerks cover the gamut of palates from Memphis BBQ to Maple Bourbon Churro and Filet Mignon. Meanwhile, Conagra’s Slim Jim (which just relaunched in Canada) appeals to the younger set offering bold flavours with a kick. The company is introducing Duke’s meat snacks to Canadians over the course of the summer, with some flavours expected to resonate with female shoppers, such as Hickory Peach BBQ.

For those looking to avoid red meat altogether, there’s a slew of alternatives like Hot Smoked Maple Salmon nuggets from Premier Seafoods, or Rosemary Turkey Sticks and Herb Citrus Turkey Bars from Country Archer Jerky Co. This fall, Freybe will be launching its new Wander product, featuring Buffalo-style chicken bites. Vegetarian snackers aren’t being shafted either, with companies like Hungry Buddha in Montreal offering jerky options made from coconut.

“I just came back from the Natural Product Expo West trade show and there was every type of jerky represented, so it’s definitely a growing trend,” says Longo’s category manager Carlo Noce. “As jerky becomes more popular, we will certainly revisit how much space we’re dedicating to these types of products.”

As this trend continues, manufacturers in the category say grocers would do well to put meat snacks in a few key areas throughout their stores. That could be the snack aisle beside the chips and other savoury fare, paired with cheeses or wine (where available), or even right at the checkout. “When you look at the U.S., they really are leading with meat snacks and putting jerky as an identifier in their aisles,” says Freybe’s Johal. “Here, people are also doing more entertaining at home with charcuterie on a Friday night as their meal, so they’re looking for ideas.”

At Red Barn Market, where dry meat snacks are merchandised in the middle of the snack aisle, the grocer has experienced double-digit growth in the category over the last year. And Longo’s has seen sales of meat snacks increasing heavily since it started listing brand leader Jack Link’s products in its stores three years ago.

In a category where 50% of product is sold on impulse and the profit margins are high, it makes sense to put these snacks at the grocery checkout and add a front-end secondary display, says John Loaiza, senior insights manager at Jack Link’s. “This is especially important during the summer months when jerky sales peak,” he says. “ gain the potential of 50% more sales.”

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer’s June 2018 issue.

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