The possibilities for popcorn continue to explode as it delivers on many current consumer demands. Manufacturers are responding by adding flavor profiles across the spectrum from healthy to indulgent and salty to sweet or a combination of both. And with snacking increasing both domestically and globally, according to several studies, sales should continue to fly.
“Popcorn trends remain extremely strong in the U.S. because of its versatility,” says Sally Lyons Wyatt, executive vice-president and practice leader, Information Resources, Inc. (IRI). “It comes in a variety of pack sizes, which drives consumption across demand moments.”
Manufacturers say the product delivers on what many consumers really want — a better-for-you snack with great taste and plenty of variety. Popcorn checks all of these boxes, sources tell Candy & Snack TODAY. Perhaps its strongest asset is that “it carries flavor extremely well,” according to Caleb Krienke, owner Krienke Foods International, Inc., which produces Pop’d Kerns.
Sector growth should continue, according to Lyons Wyatt, driven by innovation and distribution. “Continued innovation in flavors, packaging and sizes will drive the majority of growth and consumption across demand moments,” says Lyons Wyatt, adding: “Distribution gains across non-traditional outlets (office supplies, quick-service restaurants, etc.) will drive growth in coming years.”
In terms of what’s on the flavor horizon, she anticipates combinations with multiple flavors will be popular (e.g. caramel, cheese and butter), along with salty and sweet blends and black and white options made with dark and white chocolate, sometimes referred to as zebra popcorn. Spicy options will also continue to grow, Lyons Wyatt maintains.
Recent data reveals “popcorn is a real driver in salty snacks,” says Jared Koerten, senior food analyst, Euromonitor International, Inc. That’s qualified and quantified by ready-to-eat popcorn sales reaching $1.1 billion in 2015, representing 13 percent growth compared with the previous year. He anticipates 10 percent growth in 2016.
“It’s the most interesting part of the whole salty snack category because it’s considered a healthy indulgent treat that’s relatively low-calorie with generally limited ingredients and nothing in it that sounds artificial,” Koerten explains.
The sector is, however, becoming crowded, with many new brands entering the market. In fact, one purveyor notes wholesalers and buyers looking for popcorn at the 2016 Sweet & Snacks Expo were in “target rich territory.”
Recent innovations have centered on spicy flavors, such as Smartfood’s jalapeño ranch and jalapeño dark chocolate releases. According to Koerten, people move toward spicy as they get more adventurous, adding “younger consumers, ages 25 to 34, gravitate to it and like it.”
Products with sweet notes, though, are usually the entry point, he says. “We’re seeing more lightly sweetened and salty and sweet combinations. It keeps the calorie count down and people don’t want it totally coated in sweetness.”
G.H. Cretors, owned by Cornfields Inc., has capitalized on this taste profile with its best-selling Chicago Mix, which is a blend of real aged cheddar cheese popcorn and buttery caramel popcorn, according to Michelle Suhrie, vice-president of marketing. But to capture millennials’ taste preferences, along with those of consumers seeking unique flavors, she says the company is swinging in another direction with its new organic dill pickle and organic chile jalapeño white cheddar.
Pushing Flavor Boundaries
Both sweet and savory flavors are the focus of innovation with many brands. Summer provided the backdrop for the launch of Boomchickapop’s sweet barbeque, which blends barbeque with smoked paprika, cane and maple sugars. For the winter holidays, the company will offer a Holidrizzle line, which includes frosted sugar cookie kettle corn, white chocolate & peppermint, and dark chocolatier sea salt. Angie’s provides seasonal varieties in smaller packs for stocking stuffers and grab-and-go party treats.
Cretors also uses changing seasons as a springboard to introduce limited edition flavors, and this fall will offer orchard apple caramel corn, pumpkin spice caramel corn and double chocolate caramel corn.
Bold flavor is the mission at Palo Foods Inc., which produces Palo Popcorn. “We are known for intense flavor profiles, and we are careful to deliver on that promise,” says Matt Haas, director of sales, pointing to the company’s new bacon cheddar and bacon jalapeño cheddar releases.
The latest flavor innovation from Synder’s-Lance, Inc. is Cape Cod roasted black garlic. One of the reasons for the product’s development was the sector’s explosive growth, according to Rod Troni, chief marketing officer.
“Ready-to-eat popcorn is being driven by new players and better-for-you options, thus changing the dynamics,” says Troni. “It’s the same popcorn we’re used to but with better quality ingredients and stronger better-for-you credentials such as non-GMO, low calorie and no preservatives.” He also points out these factors all appeal to “the bullseye — the gen X and boomer consumers.”
Balancing Sweet & Salty
Troni also notes popcorn trends reflect what’s happening in the overall snack industry. “When you look at the macro snack category, both sweet and savory options are growing, and it’s no different for ready-to-eat popcorn,” he explains.
With its innovation leaning toward the savory side, The Popcorn Factory, owned by 1-800Flowers.com Inc., launched flavors John Schifferdecker, vice-president and general manager, calls “trend forward.” Those include sriracha, mesquite barbeque and Buffalo ranch. President David Taiclet adds the internet is useful in vetting the popularity of flavors. “We have wider offerings through that channel and less investment to get them there,” he tells Candy & Snack TODAY.
Karen Gonzalez, president of Poptacular, Inc., says the company is finding a niche with a line flavored with vegetables. “You’ve heard of vegetable chips, now there’s vegetable popcorn,” she says. The company is offering kale and a vegetable medley variety that includes spinach, red bell pepper, red beets, garlic and onion.
Following trends but still wanting to stand out is LesserEvil LLC, which uses organic coconut oil for sweetness, rather than sugar, says Lisa Harris, vice-president of product development. “Our Pink Himalayan popcorn is a traditional variety with an unexpected twist delivered by the coconut oil.”
Krienke’s Pop’d Kerns’ innovation involves half-popped kernels, which are “not hard, not soft, they’re right in between,” says Krienke, explaining it’s not a ‘me too’ item.
On the global horizon, he reports that exporting has “opened the floodgates” at the company, with salty snacks growing in many countries.
The Shift Toward Premium
In terms of pricing, a shift toward premium options is stretching the sector into new territory, states Troni.
“Premium options have fueled dollar growth to outpace units, however, it’s a very aggressive category that promotes frequently,” he explains.
Sarah Batterson, marketing manager at Open Road Snacks, which owns the Sinfully Thin and Rocky Mountain Popcorn brands, says the former line was developed to be a breakout premium product using varietal kernels high in antioxidants and protein, and lower in starch.
According to company research, in the past eight years consumers have come to appreciate higher quality ready-to-eat snacks and are “paying more per ounce than they used to.” Also, popcorn consumption in particular has grown by 18 percent in the past five years, with 43 percent of households having consumed popcorn in the previous 24 hours, Batterson says.
Throwing its own figurative firework into the brand explosion is Herr Foods Inc. with its Go Lite brand. It’s meant to tap consumers’ taste for a better-for-you treat, says Bob Clark, vice-president of marketing.
“With people’s desire to eat lighter and healthier, we wanted to be in the natural section in the snack aisle. We want to play in that world where products have simple ingredients with flavor,” Clark reports.
Go Lite is differentiated with “a lighter profile that features 50 percent less fat and 13 percent fewer calories compared to leading brands, with 35 calories per cup,” he says. It’s made with coconut oil and Himalayan salt.
In May, the company released a rosemary and olive oil line extension. The packaging was designed to be feminine and a bit playful with a modern look to appeal “to those with an eye toward eating light,” says Clark.
The company’s Herr brand has also seen innovation, with heat and spice brought forward by blending jalapeños and other pepper flavors into the seasoning. “There’s a large consumer base that likes heat. People are looking for flavor with a spicy kick too,” Clark points out.
Keeping It Simple
Some manufacturers have found success by keeping their product’s profile clean and its ingredient list short. SkinnyPop is one such brand, featuring three ingredients: popcorn, sunflower oil and salt. The strategy is to capitalize on consumer interest in better-for-you items, according to Pam Finer, director of marketing.
“Original is our bestseller because consumers gravitate toward its simplicity and great taste,” says Finer, further explaining: “The brand is differentiated in that it has clear better-for-you positioning.” Pack callouts cover its status as free of major allergens, gluten and preservatives, and it contains non-GMO ingredients. Finer says the products also appeal to mainstream consumers.
Another value proposition lies with being first to market with flavor profiles. David Israel, owner of five-year-old Pop! Gourmet Foods, uses this approach to mark fresh territory. “I’m in the flavor innovation business, and popcorn is the conduit,” he states.
To achieve bold flavors, the company has sought out well-known sauces for co-branding and developed powders for seasoning. This was the approach with Huy Fong Foods Inc., which manufactures sriracha hot chili pepper sauces, Tajin Clasico Seasoning, which is crafted with Mexican chilies, lime juice and sea salt, and Rogue Creamery, which manufactures blue cheese.
Forming these partnerships was a strategic move. “I didn’t want to get trampled by the big guys by producing similar products, so I went with the partnership model. I like win/win deals,” says Israel.
A new entry into the sector with a game plan that involves clear film bags is McJak Candy Co. The company’s County Fair line is available in four flavors — sriracha, Parmesan garlic, triple cheese and kettle corn. Denise Kyle, national sales manager, says the company chose clear bags for transparency, both literally and figuratively. “We heard from retailers that consumers want to see what they are getting,” she adds.
And while the flavors are on trend, the packaging also evokes nostalgia for the classic county fair snack.
Looking ahead, Lyons Wyatt says the sector should continue to show reliable growth, citing its unique appeal to all generations, lifestyles and life stages. Additionally, among consumers looking for food options with benefits, popcorn delivers with fiber. With this forecast, the trade winds for popcorn should deliver success. CST
Smaller Manufacturers’ Innovations Lead to More ‘Trips To Mouth’
Smaller manufacturers have carved out space in the heavily populated popcorn sector by offering innovation through differentiated kernels, ingredient mixes and packaging. By operating on a different scale, many are nimble enough to take chances some larger companies might not.
Black Jewell, Inc. has found traction with its Null Hull brand which features “a proprietary small black kernel produced from heirloom seeds that are essentially hull-less and won’t get stuck in your teeth, plus they’re easier to digest,” says Barry Johnson, president. In addition, the company promotes its transparency, claiming farm-to-bag origins, revealing its process of growing nursery plots of its seeds annually, then selecting family farms on which they’re planted.
Also using a smaller kernel as the springboard for a new product is The Little Kernel, which stakes out the hull-less territory, too, according to co-owner Andy Epstein. The popcorn is offered in five salted varieties and one that’s naked.
Relying on uncommon inclusions is the strategy with Hello! Brands’ Popcorn Thins, which feature flat clusters of artisanal caramel popcorn with a sweet and salty profile, along with the addition of almonds, dried cherries and cranberries, and pumpkin seeds. “Our hand-pressed method creates a form reminiscent of brittle,” explains Courtney Whales, sales and marketing representative. She says the evolving nature of popcorn can drive the metric the company calls “trips to mouth.”
To find its own place in the popcorn universe, Popsalot Gourmet Popcorn has sought alternative distribution channels, many in travel venues. Placement in hotels, casinos and cruise ships, as well as exporting to more than 10 countries, is a good match for its varieties featuring spices and infusions. A sampling of flavors includes Roman Holiday with parmesan cheese, Saigon Sunrise, caramel coated with Vietnamese Cinnamon, and Honolulu Aloha, caramel coated with macadamia nuts.
According to Brian Lipner, president, Gary Poppins LLC, premiumization is what the company is banking on with its handcrafted range of flavors for retail channels as well as an extended 45-flavor selection for private label including sour cream & chives, gingerbread crunch, coffee & caramel, and sweet madras and cashew.
Also manufacturing a premium product is Annie B’s which thrives in the gift channel. Its varieties are made in small batches and packed using the company’s signature clear film, says Tore Swenson, vice-president of sales. CST