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Hip dips and sassy sauces

Offering a wide array of innovative dips and sauces can help save customers from meal-prep burnout

Earlier in the pandemic, consumers in lockdown fully embraced home cooking. They dusted off old cookbooks in search of meal ideas and adopted a “let’s try it” attitude in the kitchen. More than half a year later, however, pandemic and cooking fatigue has kicked in and for many, meal preparation has become a chore again.

“Enthusiasm for trying new recipes has waned,” says Dana McCauley, director of new venture creation at the University of Guelph’s Research Innovation Office. “Many people have realized they don’t have as much time as they thought they would. They are looking for convenience when they shop. Dips and sauces offer new ways to keep meals interesting and take them in a new direction.”

That bodes well for continued growth in the category. Sauce sales have hit double-digit growth over the last year—Asian sauces are up 19.5%, baking and cooking sauces rose by 20.4%, pizza sauce is up by 29.8%, and pasta sauce sales grew by 17%, according to Nielsen data. Prepared dips are doing well, too, with an overall 5.1% increase; with guacamole, garlic, dill, and herb and spice flavours leading the pack.

McCauley says strategic planning will help grocers take advantage of the sauces and dips trend, including introducing their own house brands. Single-serving samples could be distributed by mail, included with flyer bundles delivered to homes, or tucked into bags with a delivery or pick-up order. In-store placement also plays a role—putting an array of baking sauces right next to the chicken section in the meat department could spark impulse purchases and trial, for instance. Consumers are also seeking packaging that offers longer shelf life, and smaller sizes so items don’t sit in the fridge too long and go bad.

A trend within the trend is the boom in healthier options. Consumers are hyper-aware of the need to stay well these days, so they’re looking for clean products with more real ingredients and fewer preservatives, as well as plant-based choices. Canadian company Mother Raw has found success across Canada and the United States with its healthier positioned dressings/marinades and dips, including its popular vegan quesos, which can be used as a “cheese” sauce poured over pasta, as a dip or as a spread in wraps. “They are accessible to almost any lifestyle, diet or allergy/sensitivity,” says CEO Kristi Knowles, noting the quesos satisfy cheesy cravings without any dairy or nuts. Mother Raw offers another option to dips that can be highly processed and contain refined canola oil, additives, preservatives, fillers and refined sugars. “We like to say that we are made by nature, not in a lab,” adds Knowles.

The company continues to add new products to its roster, including a ranch and a French onion dip. “Along with regular promotional programming in store, our focus on digital media allows us to reach consumers living around retail locations to promote the availability of at a store near them,” explains Knowles. It also works with retailers on digital programs with sponsored listings on their online stores and customized recipes featuring Mother Raw.

Another Canadian sauce success story is La Dee Da Gourmet Sauces, created in Ontario by the “Sauce Queens”—Mary Marino, Jo Anne Torrance and Marlow Italiano. They’ve focused on healthy gourmet sauces with four SKUs, including savoury mushroom basil and butternut squash beet. They credit the versatility of La Dee Da products (the sauces can be used as anything from a soup base to a pizza topper) for the brand’s loyal customer following. The company’s new cauliflower Alfredo sauce is both vegan and keto friendly. In conjunction with retail partners, La Dee Da creates yearly promotion calendars so consumers can take advantage of savings.

Big-name brands are also ramping up with new entries. This August, Campbell Company of Canada introduced a sodium-reduced variety of Pace chunky salsa with 30% less salt than the regular offering. The new salsa is also gluten free and has no added sugar. It joins other newcomers to the company’s salsa lineup—a peach mango salsa and a salsa verde brought to market last year—providing customers something beyond standard red salsa. To showcase the salsa’s versatility, new recipe ideas in the digital space provide inspiration for home cooks.

“Our salsa and pasta sauce businesses have seen strong growth in demand over the latest six months, led by the Pace and Prego brands,” says Mieka Burns, vice-president, marketing, Campbell Canada. “Since the onset of the pandemic, we’ve seen a dramatic shift in the percentage of meals sourced from home. The fastest growth has come from those meals designated as ‘quick-scratch cooking,’ which take no more than 30 minutes to prepare and contain pre-prepared and homemade components. Salsas and pasta sauces fit well into these occasions.”

Tree of Life Canada, which distributes the Mrs. Renfro’s brand, is a big believer in the staying power of the Mexican salsa category. It has remained steady and strong throughout COVID, and Mike Cunningham, the company’s team lead for marketing insights, credits shoppers craving quick and easy snacks and salsa’s ability to pair well with a multitude of other categories (crackers, chips, vegetables, etc.) for those healthy sales.

Cunningham cites the 2019 Mintel report Dips and Savoury Spreads Canada that shows Canadians love dips because they add excitement to familiar foods. “In other words, they allow consumers to explore or try new and unique flavours with their favourite accompaniments (crackers, tortilla chips, etc.).” Though salsas rule for Mrs. Renfro, founded in 1940, the brand recently added a nacho cheese sauce that can be served warm over nachos or scooped straight out of the jar.

“The dips and sauces category is usually tied to the success of the salty snack category,” Cunningham explains. “The two segments pair well together, and we see seasonal spikes and lifts in sales whenever key celebrations occur—Christmas and New Year’s, Super Bowl weekend, etc. Accordingly, any opportunities to co-promote or tie promotions together” are beneficial, he says, such as buy three bags of tortilla chips and get a free jar of salsa. “ really ramp up awareness of the brands and segments and enable consumers to mix and match, or try some unique flavours with their favourite chips, crackers or tortillas.”

Since the start of the pandemic, independent grocer Vince’s Market, with five Ontario locations, has enjoyed robust sales in salsa, guacamole and hummus. “Anything that pairs well with chips,” says Sabrina Greco, category manager. Canadian brand Mad Mexican has been a standout performer, thanks to its all-natural ingredients. “With many
people working from home and spending more time indoors, they are naturally prone to snacking,” she says. “Chips and dip is a great ‘go-to’ when you need a little something between meals. With a variety of healthy options available, you don’t have to feel guilty about grazing.”

Next up, expect things to heat up as hot dips that can be popped into a microwave will become a go-to selection. In January, Vince’s will be stocking these for shoppers looking for something different in time for Super Bowl. The retailer will run promotions with bundle pricing and encourage mix-and-match buying. Knowledgeable staff will also help support sales.

In a time when opportunity to travel is limited, international flavours are bringing a taste of the world to consumers. VH (part of Conagra Brands) has seen an uptick across the full range of its multi-purpose sauces, including flavours like teriyaki, honey garlic and pineapple jerk. “With the unique assortment of VH sauces currently offered, consumers are able to be creative with their usage and meals,” says Zora Crowder, marketing director & grocery team leader, Conagra Brands.

Seizing on the sweet-plus-heat trend, VH is adding a new a lemon herb peri peri sauce to its lineup. “We are finding that sweet and spicy are emerging flavours that consumers are showing interest in to experience multi-textural foods,” she says. To build those bigger basket sizes, Conagra partners with grocers to develop customer-specific programs, leveraging its retail team to activate displays to drive sales for the brand.

Some shoppers crave elevated takes on traditional sauces and dips—comfort food in uncertain times. In response to a demand for high-quality jarred and fresh tomato sauces, Italian Centre Shop (with three locations in Edmonton and one in Calgary) created its own house brand, Massimo’s, offering a classic pomodoro and an arrabbiata with a zesty kick. For luxurious twists, the retailer also sells a truffle sauce to put an elegant spin when added to aioli, and an ajvar (a red pepper spread from southeastern Europe) to add sophistication to paninis, according to general manager, Gino Marghella.

Through promotion on social media, new products and store favourites generate plenty of buzz. Those with attractive packaging are catching the eye of consumers and inspiring buying because they can be repurposed once empty: “We’ve had customers post pictures on social media of the prettier jars and bottles being used as vases for florals and large, colourful cans as plant pots and storage.”

And there’s no rule that sauces and dips can’t wander into sweet territory. Chocolate hummus has developed a following, displayed at grocery stores next to its savoury sisters—and doing well. At Italian Centre Shop, pistachio cream and dulce de leche serve as dip for chopped fruits, pretzels and cookies. Meanwhile, fruity sauces, like the grocer’s new Amarena cherry, are expected to be a holiday hit as a topping on pancakes, waffles, cake or gelato.

Whether sweet or savoury, there’s no question that dips and sauces are enjoying star treatment at many retailers as consumers continue to look for new ways to jazz up their snacking and meal occasions.

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer‘s November 2020 issue.

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