What We Saw at the 2018 Winter Fancy Food Show

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by Clark Driftmier

A bay. A bridge. A conference hall filled with thousands of delicious indulgent delights.  This is the Winter Fancy Food Show, which was held this week at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.

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We toured the halls and aisles of the Winter Fancy Food Show, looking for the key trends and areas of growth in this dynamic event. Below are several of the products, categories and trends that we observed:

1.       1,001 Variations on Familiar Themes

·       The key quality of the Fancy Food show has always been “gourmet” in all of its forms. This quality continued in 2018 with multiple new variations on gourmet products that are mostly familiar to folks in the food industry.  These “variations on a theme” include multiple versions of: salamis and meats, cheeses, olive oils and other oils, gourmet mustards and condiments, crackers, chocolates and other confectionary, nuts, soups and the like. There were also multiple versions of familiar foods in the international exhibits (multiple Italian pastas, multiple French brie and other cheeses, etc.). More on that international trend later in the blog.

2.       Plant Based? Not exactly - - Meat and Dairy Still Rule (for the most part)

·       One aspect of the “gourmet but familiar” theme highlighted at Fancy Food was the continued dominance of meat and dairy products.  This heroic position for products from animal agriculture contrasts, somewhat, with a greater focus on plant-based products seen at the Natural Products Expo’s. Here at Fancy Food, meats, cheeses and dairy products were proudly on display in every aisle. While there certainly were plant-based products, (e.g. mushroom Jerky) those products were in the distinct minority.

3.       Glass-jar Fermented Products

·       The popularity of fermented and glass-jar brands has increased, and many of these products were on display.  While glass usage is declining in most of the food industry (e.g. your popular mayo and ketchup are almost certainly packaged in plastic these days), at Fancy Food the glass packaging was an essential part of the branding. Glass helped to emphasize the feeling of being hand-batch, artisan, “just from my kitchen stovetop” (or alternatively, “just like Grandma made it.”)

4.       All Things Handcrafted + Artisan

·       Speaking of hand-batch, it seemed that just about every-other booth had branding and imagery communicating “handcrafted” or “artisan.”  From sodas to soups to savory snacks, products throughout the show emphasized the quality of being handcrafted. This quality signifies care, provenance (“yes, we ourselves made this product”), attention to detail and a greater connection between the food, its makers and its customers.

5.       A Brand Grows in Brooklyn

·       Thinking of provenance, the “capital” of handcrafted + artisan foods in America is definitely Brooklyn. Products throughout the show proudly displayed their Brooklyn origins. Being from Brooklyn elevates a brand’s profile from “just food” to “something more than just food.” This quality raises an intriguing question: since all NYC boroughs have amazing food, when will we start to see food products and cuisine branded as Queens, Staten Island or the Bronx? Attention New Yorkers - - it may be time for you to develop a complete “5-Borough” strategy for your innovative food start-ups!

6.       Coconut on a roll – from meats to waters to oils to butters to sweeteners to snacks

·       Coconut products have been increasing in popularity for a number of years, and coconut has evolved into multiple products across several very different categories. This year we saw more coconut-based snacks than ever before. There were also more coconut sweeteners featured, as well as products sweetened with coconut. And of course, lots of coconut water brands and coconut milks.

7.       Mucha Matcha

·       Matcha tea is having a “moment” (or maybe a decade) as consumers discover its health and flavor benefits. At the show we saw various forms of matcha tea as well as products such as breath mints made with matcha. Go Green !

8.       Mellow Mallows (and Krispies)

·       No longer limited to S’mores and campfires, marshmallows have expanded significantly as a specialty gourmet or artisan type of food, both as a snack and as a cooking ingredient. More than 10 gourmet marshmallow brands were on display at the show. Along with this trend, the traditional Rice Krispy treat has gone upscale, more adult and more gourmet with multiple artisan versions on display at the show.

9.       Natural Fruit & Veggie Snacks

·       As snacks have exploded, there is also a desire to limit fat and sodium. Filling this need is the growth of natural snacks made with fruits & veggies, which have expanded as a less-processed alternative to fat and sodium rich snacks. Whether baked, air-dried or freeze-dried, fruit and veggie-based snacks have increased their profile at the show, with new brands in display as well as flavor expansion from current category leaders.

10.   Spreading the Flavor – Expansion of Spreads & Butters

·       The growth of Nutella and other flavored spreads has led to an expansion of flavored spreads brands at Fancy Food. There is also an expansion of nut butters, both with peanut butter and with other types of nuts including walnut.

11.   Gifts of the Levant – Middle Eastern Flavors Expand

·       All of us enjoy hummus and falafel, Middle Eastern foods which have entered mainstream American food culture. However, companies exhibiting Middle Eastern foods at the Fancy Food show went beyond the familiar to a fuller and richer set of products highlighting the culinary traditions of Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the countries of the Levant. We predict that Middle Eastern flavors will continue to expand as consumers broaden their palettes and embrace a wider range of culinary delights from this region.

12.   Even Further South of the Border – Growth of Central American Cuisine

·       Geographically, the growth of Latin American cuisines (and there are many) has led to a greater presence of foods from Central America, especially Costa Rica and El Salvador. From Salvadoran Papusas to Cost Rican Gallo Pinto, the foods of Central America are becoming more important to the flavor innovation found in American supermarkets and restaurants.

13.   Clearly Southeast Asian – Expansion of Pho, Clear Broth Products

·       Our culinary tour of Fancy Food continues to Southeast Asia, where we noticed a number of brands and foods representing the cuisines of Vietnam, Cambodia and Philippines. Clear broth soup brands with spices such as lemon grass were featured, as were pho brands and Filipino flavors and dishes such as Adobo and Sinigang.

14.   Thin is (Still) In

·       We have been in the “thin” snack era for a number of years, and that trend continued on the Fancy Food show floor. There were products explicitly with “Thin” in the name, both the familiar brands and new brands. We also saw other products, though not named “thin,” which nonetheless had thin or wafer-like forms. Being “thin” communicates the quality of “slenderness” both visually (“it’s thin therefore I will be thin”) and nutritionally (“it’s thin therefore each unit has fewer calories, which helps me limit calories to stay thin.”)

15.   “Picture Postcard” Foods – International Products Stay True to Iconic Favorites

·       One quality we noticed at the international pavilions and booths is that the foods on display were almost entirely those traditional foods we think of from each country. In each booth, the food company displayed foods that we might call “iconic” to that country’s traditional food culture. Thus, the French booths had French cheeses, baguettes and yummy pastries (but not the West African and Asian foods currently sweeping the street food scene in Paris and other French cities). The UK booths feature Stilton cheese, shortbread cookies and English teas (but not the explosion of curries and South Asian foods which have revolutionized the British palette). Same for Spain - - lots of traditional hams and mancheco cheeses, but not the North African or Latin American food that one actually sees regularly on the streets in Spain.  In every case, the booths seemed to cater to what Americans have in our minds as the iconic food of that country, rather than representing the current food scene occurring right now in that country. In a way, we Americans want the foods we import from UK, France, Spain etc. to be the “picture postcard” foods we love and identify from that country, irrespective of the actual dishes being prepared and enjoyed daily in the homes and cafes of those countries. There is certainly much traditional French food in France, but French consumers are also reaching out to all types of new foods and flavors. Will these newer and evolved foods from France (and other countries) make their way to US store shelves – interesting question.

Two principles seemed to emerge from our tour of the halls of the Winter Fancy Foods show – Reassurance and Innovation. Reassurance was found in the delightful array of familiar foods and forms, presented in gourmet, mouth-watering food experiences. With Reassurance, consumers can say “Yes, this is the dark chocolate I love, and my favorite brand does it magnificently.” Innovation was found in the interesting new foods which might not be familiar to consumers but which fulfill the need for variety. With Innovation, consumers can say “You know, I’ve never tried Matcha breath mints before, but they look interesting. I’ll try one.” On balance, the Winter Fancy Food show is a gourmet foods showplace, and it will steer towards Reassurance, presenting familiar foods in marvelous and delightful ways. But Innovation also has a role, as consumer tastes evolve and food-makers create foods to meet that evolution.  We look forward in anticipation of both the reassuring and the innovative offerings at the next Fancy Food show.

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CLARK DRIFTMIER is Managing Director of Strobus Consulting (www.strobusconsulting.com) which provides clients with new product development and go-to-market business development strategies. He has been a food entrepreneur and start-up specialist for nearly 3 decades. Clark’s new product and management initiatives include hundreds of new products in several dozen food categories, with combined annual sales of nearly $2 billion. A published author of articles on natural and organic foods, Clark has also spoken at numerous conferences and has served on several national and regional not-for-profit boards. He and his family live in Northern California.