One of the first things we do every day at SKU is looking at NOSH and BevNet to learn about the latest trends and brand news. For 25 years, NOSH/BevNet has been helping food and beverage professionals navigate the industry. At the helm of the news side is editor-in-chief Jeff Klineman, a thought leader with a deep knowledge base in the food and beverage business.
Jeff recently took time out of his schedule to share insights about the industry and his own journey.
Kirstin: You’ve covered the industry for 16 years. What are some of the most unexpected and exciting trends you’ve seen over that time?
Jeff: I can’t believe I’ve been doing this for so long! I think the most unexpected trend isn’t necessarily a special diet or product type, But actually just how widespread CPG entrepreneurship has become. My theory is that the financial crisis of the late Bush/early Obama years coincided with the growth of “foodie” trends, special diets, and social media to create this incredibly active layer of food entrepreneurialism.
You had a mix of true believers in health and fitness, true believers with regard to environmental causes and social movements, and also a group of young, smart, underemployed professionals who were disillusioned with their career paths, had knowledge and determination, and have remade the way people think about food and drink.
The Power of True Believers
Kirstin: What would you say are the biggest trends in food and in beverages right now?
Jeff: If you look across all food and beverage, it’s sugar reduction. Look at the Seltzer trend, which is having a huge impact on the beer business. In non-alcoholic beverages it’s sparkling water. And in food — alongside vegan and meat reduction — it’s Keto and grain-free products, which are basically about cutting out sugar. It’s funny because the overall trend is “is it healthy?” But the means to it keeps changing. Still, there’s a pretty direct line from Keto and Paleo back to South Beach and Atkins.
There are plenty of smaller trends as well that are super important, both in terms of the search for recyclable packaging, cause-focused brands, organics, or flavors like coconut or coffee. You look at all of these ways of reformulating what had been basic materials, like plant-based meat and dairy. Sugar-free chocolate seems to be growing, although it’s certainly not my favorite!
Kirstin: Are there any common factors that you feel increase the likelihood of a product’s success?
Jeff: Well, it helps to have a ton of money to hit the slotting requirements of the bigger retailers. But I think it’s generally really important to think hard about your geographic and category strategy, and how it relates to finding your consumers. I think that the ability to cut COGS and still create a top-notch product is one of the factors that makes it easier for a company to find capital and to continue to grow. People tend to underestimate the value of their operations team until they start bleeding money.
I’ve always had a slightly different take with regard to brands, which is probably why it’s good that I don’t own one. I’m a fan of the products focusing on their highest, best use before they think about platforms or brand expansion and the rest. So think about the audience you think is going to value this product most highly, and approach them. But also be aware of how others use your product, because often they can tell you what it’s really good for.
Still waiting for the kelp explosion
Kirstin: What are your predictions about the categories that will see the most growth over the next few years?
Jeff: That’s hard to say. RTD spirits are already taking off, but they haven’t quite sorted themselves out yet. I’m still waiting for the kelp explosion. Products that ship well in D2C are doing really well, like powders and extracts. But I think it’s a broad question. There are plenty of winners in falling categories, and plenty of losers in rising ones.
Kirstin: How has product innovation been affected by COVID?
Jeff: One big issue that I’ve heard for many months is that it’s pretty hard to get innovative new product SKUs manufactured. Consumers have gone for the familiar, there’s been a strong reversion to hero SKUs, and those are sucking up a lot of line time.
And that line time has been reduced due to the need to inhibit virus spread. But if it’s held up execution of planned innovation, it’s also forced a lot of entrepreneurs into their little laboratories and hidden basement lairs where they come up with new ways to surprise and delight. We’ll see some funky new products soon, I’m sure!
The future is snackaging!
Kirstin: If you were going to create a product today, what would it be?
Jeff: The I’ve always been looking to create is “snackaging.”™
What is snackaging, you ask? It’s an alternative to packing peanuts and other cushioning materials. Rather than having your delivery come in a bunch of Styrofoam that lasts forever, or those inflated plastic cushions you have to pop, you get Cheetos, corn chips, Chex mix, popcorn as the impact-absorbing medium. You open your box, you get whatever product you ordered, and as a bonus, a whole bunch of delicious snacks! I am happy to speak to anyone about this idea! One of the big issues to solve is the potential for rats and mice to attack your products while they are in transit. But with “snackaging,”TM the future is here!
Kirstin: Do you miss the days of the big trade show, and do you think we’ll ever go back to those times?
Jeff: Well, it’s an interesting dilemma: I love seeing people but I also feel like these trade shows are overwhelming at times, and can be completely exhausting. I am sure they’ll be back; people like to be “locked in” together and feel the collective flow. But I don’t know how long it will be before people feel safe enough from a liability standpoint to create these kinds of gatherings.
Anytime you’ve got these multi-day events going on for a while, you have trade show viruses and their versions of the “Wookie Flu.” So I think we’re going to really have to have a high level of immunity via vaccination. The Wookie Flu is one thing, but you shouldn’t feel like you’re risking your life just to try another vinegar shot or mushroom espresso!