By Lynn Petrak, Special Projects Editor
Meatsnacks go beyond the basics, but hot dogs stick to a successful formula.
Cousins of sorts to sausages — akin by way of processing and seasoning — frankfurters and meatsnacks have long been associated with Americana. Like sausages, these items have been in the making for at a century or more, yet they have enjoyed stable if slightly increased growth in recent times.
Some of the growth stems from consumers seeking protein fixes as they cut their intake of carbohydrates. Although the Atkins plan and South Beach diet have peaked by many accounts, people are now more educated about excess carbs and have increasingly turned to high-protein meals and snacks, all the more appealing in convenient and palatable forms like hot dogs and meatsnacks.
Solid sales also can be attributed to the development of more gourmet and ethnic varieties, with American consumers continuing their search for products that provide a familiar, favorite taste with a contemporary twist. Not to be overlooked, meanwhile, is the trend toward diverse formats, with meat-based products incorporated as an ingredient in meal solutions and offered in a broader array of sizes and shapes.
Dried and true
From traditional beef jerky to chicken-breast nuggets, dried meats remain a popular choice among consumers looking to satisfy their snacking urges throughout the day. This is also a category that is enjoying double-digit growth in sales, all the more intriguing because it is one of the more mature segments of both the snack and meat industries.
Sales of dried meatsnacks jumped 11 percent from the end of 2003 to the end of 2004 to reach nearly $308 million, relays data compiled by Information Resources Inc. (IRI), Chicago. Within the category, most leading brands notched gains in dollar sales, with Kent, WA-based Oberto Sausage rising 11.2 percent, Omaha, NE-based ConAgra Slim Jim edging up 8.2 percent, Minong, Wisconsin-based Jack Link’s increasing 6.2 percent, and Anaheim, CA-based Bridgford up 5.3 percent.
Such increases have not gone unnoticed by retailers.
“When you go past potato and tortilla chips, meatsnacks are the third-largest segment in the snack industry. That is a story that is just beginning to resonate with the retailer,” points out Jeffrey Fisher, executive vice president of the Knauss Snack Food Company, Martinsville, VA —which was recently acquired by Rosen’s Diversified Inc. in Fairmont, MN. “Prior to three or four years ago, it was more ‘We have to have them, so we’ll put them there.’ Now, retailers are seeing they can generate good sales volume.”
Some of the upward motion can be tied to the interest in low-carb diets, especially in the early half of 2004 when the trend was at its pinnacle. Despite a drop in the number of Americans saying follow strict low-carb eating plans, many meatsnack manufacturers say that the increased attention is not a flash in the pan.
“While we may not see the monumental growth that we saw over the past five years, I think the awareness of beef jerky and meatsnacks as portable easy-to-eat snacks has risen to a new level,” observes Fisher.
That is an analysis shared by Cathy Sturm, senior marketing manager for Jack Link’s. “Although the low-carb frenzy does seem to be leveling out, we see the interest in healthy snacks as a long-term trend with consumers. Consumers want snacks that are lower in calories, fat, and carbohydrates, but they don't want to sacrifice great taste,” she says.
Sturm says brands like Jack Link’s can help sustain the meatsnack momentum by giving customers more of what they want. “There is still a huge upswing opportunity for the category in terms of consumer consumption, so we expect the category to continue to focus on new product forms and flavors to appeal to emerging consumers,” she says.
As far as form goes, there are indeed more types of meatsnacks available today than even 10 years ago. For example, as the core of the category, beef jerky is sold in many different types of packages, from 3.75-ounce bags to single-serve grab-and-go items to larger party packs.
Meat sticks, too, now come in a range of formats, from novelty shapes to larger pieces for hearty appetites. Jack Link’s, for its part, recently introduced a Super Size Beef Stick in a teriyaki flavor, while Oberto has launched a line of Snackers Meat Snacks that includes a Giant Stick.
Nugget-shaped meatsnacks seem to be emerging most prominently in the category.
Jack Link’s is pursuing consumers through the nugget form, including new flavored varieties.
“Many of the new consumers are women and working professionals who tend to prefer softer, moister forms of meat snacks and innovative ‘mealtime’ flavors,” says Sturm. “Jack Link's leads this trend with the introduction of new products such as Jack Link's four-ounce Kikkoman Beef Steak Nuggets.”
Jack Link’s partnership with Kikkoman to marry new flavors with meatsnacks is an example of consumer clamor for more intense tastes. Jack Link’s also recently teamed up with a barbecue sauce company on a new barbecue beef jerky. Jack Link’s® KC Masterpiece® Beef Jerky is made with slices of lean beef seasoned with KC Masterpiece® Barbecue Sauce, and it is sold in 3.65-ounce packages.
ConAgra’s Slim Jim and Pemmican product lines feature pizza, teriyaki, chili, hickory, and Tabasco varieties, while Springdale, AR-based Tyson has partnered with Jack Link’s to offer Tyson® Buffalo Style Chicken Chunks and Tyson Teriyaki flavor Chicken Chunks.
Jack Link’s recently created a new Hot Head Pickled Sausage made with cayenne pepper and an even spicier Screamin’ Demon version; the company already partnered with “The Original” Louisiana Hot Sauce on a 4-ounce Louisiana Hot Sauce Beef Jerky. Meanwhile, Oberto offers a “Flamin’ Hot” jalapeno-flavored sausage.
Wiener takes all
Flavors may still be on the simple side for hot dogs — cheddar cheese is about the only added ingredient — but frankfurters remain an institution in this country.
The retail frankfurter category continues to be stable, according to recent sales data compiled by IRI. In-store dollar sales from the end of the calendar year 2003 to 2004 topped nearly $1.65 billion, a similar figure from the previous time period. Brand-wise, although Kraft Foods’ Madison, WI-based Oscar Mayer posted a slight 0.1 percent sales loss and Cincinnati, OH-based Sara Lee’s Ball Park brand declined 4.4 percent, Phoenix, AZ-based Bar-S Foods saw its dollar sales rise 5.6 percent, and Hebrew National picked up 9.4 percent.
New-product development in the frankfurter category is not as prolific as in the sausage and meatsnack segments. Still, there have been some subtle shifts in hot dog formulas. Ball Park, for instance, introduced a new line of Grill Masters in 2004, with heartier flavors geared toward heavy frankfurter consumers, typically male. The Grill Masters are available in beef, garlic, Cajun-style, and smoky varieties.
A few processors are marketing hot dogs made with Angus beef. Berks Packing Company, Reading, PA and Usinger’s Famous Sausage, Milwaukee, WI, both have recently unveiled such items to appeal to consumers who associate Angus with quality.
Other emerging frankfurter products have come in the form of meal solutions, like Oscar Mayer’s corn dogs and Hot Dog Pitas available from New Brunswick, Canada-based Fancy Pokket.
Although the light and reduced-fat frankfurter sub-category dates back at least a decade, poultry-based hot dogs continue to attract health-conscious consumers and even those with certain lifestyle commitments.
"With the ethnic mix of our nation continuing to change, we can assume turkey franks are increasing in popularity due to the growing religious and ethnic diet restrictions. Turkey products are universally accepted,” points out Sherrie Rosenblatt, senior director of marketing and communications for the National Turkey Federation, Washington, DC. She adds that turkey hot dogs contain approximately half the amount of fat as regular hot dogs, but they typically contain more protein.
Another segment to watch is the natural and organic hot-dog market. Once available only in natural markets, certified organic and natural hot dogs, produced without the use of hormones or antibiotics, are now available in several mainstream supermarkets.