Cooking is cool and flavor is on the menu.
Yes, people are cooking at home again; and the meals these would-be chefs are whipping up are much more interesting than a bowl of pasta covered in jarred sauce or meat and potatoes sprinkled with salt and pepper. Driven by the increasing popularity of regional and ethnic fare, a focus on healthier eating and the availability of recipes, consumers are flocking to the spice aisle.
According to Chicago-based IRI, sales in the spices and seasonings category topped $3 billion for the 52-week period ended December 29, an increase of nearly 5% from the previous year.
“The way consumers approach flavor continues to evolve,” says Laurie Harrsen, spokesperson for Hunt Valley, Md.-based McCormick & Co. “Home cooks are looking for inspiration and tools to try new ideas and experience flavors in simple, convenient ways.”
To help consumers find their inspiration, McCormick is introducing more than 30 products across several of its portfolios. Some of the new products include Hot Hungarian Paprika, Chipotle Chili Pepper, Smoked Paprika and Chipotle & Roasted Garlic.
Industry observers say that in addition to trying new flavors and seasonings, consumers are looking for greater diversity and convenience from retailers’ shelves. This was a key driver behind J.R. Watkins’ decision to enter the dry seasoning mix category. “We are always looking for new and unique gourmet offerings to complement the classic flavors we are known for,” says J.R. Rigley, president and CMO of Winona, Minn.-based J.R. Watkins. “While consumers are getting more adventurous with their tastes, they still want it to be easy and accessible. That’s why we continue to introduce both unique flavors, such as Chinese Five Spice Blend and cardamom, and simple solutions like our dry seasoning mixes and grinders.”
Rigley adds that much of the company’s focus is on developing new products using high-quality, natural spices, and will add fajita, meatloaf and chicken gravy seasoning to its existing taco, chili, brown gravy and turkey mixes this year.
The trend toward natural plays a role in the category as well and works nicely for brands like Tony Chachere’s line of Creole seasonings and mixes, specifically its Bold product. “Our Bold seasoning is doing very well; there is a huge trend toward natural and no MSG, which our products are,” says Robert Albaugh, western regional sales manager for the Opelousas, La.-based company. “We also have light salt and no salt versions for people watching their sodium intake.”
As more consumers experiment with a variety of spices, the potential for retailer shelves to become crowded exists. With so many SKUs available to retailers, Albaugh says they need to monitor their inventory closely.
“It is also important that retailers seek value,” he says. “For example, compared to other spices we retail for less, positioning ourselves as a consumer value. I am showing retailers how they can replace SKUs that may not be selling well and how they can get an incremental bump in profitability for the category.”
Organic is another area that has gained traction in the spice aisle, say observers. The price gap, which was once double, has narrowed, making organic options more attractive to consumers who are looking for it.
“Organics now cost only about 30% more,” says Mick Whitlock, president of Baltimore-based Vanns Spices. “We have seen a significant increase in our organic sales.”
In addition to organic, Vanns is heavily invested in private label. Whitlock says, although they are looking to build the Vanns brand more, right now about 80% of their business is private label; and being a smaller company helps build both sides of the business. “If a retailer wants to try something new, they don’t have to start with a lot of product. We let our customers order small amounts so they can expand their spice aisle,” he says.
Observers say that because of the various cooking shows on TV, the litany of shared information on social media outlets and personal dining experiences, it may seem like most shoppers are well educated on which spices and seasonings will complement a particular dish. For many this is the case, but there are still a great number of shoppers entering the store looking for answers. A good way to capture their dollars is via sampling.
Sampling is the best way for brand recognition, says Greg Marcus, owner of the Irving Marcus company, based in South Plainfield, N.J., maker of the Season 1 brand. There are currently five products in the Season 1 line, which has been available to retailers for about a year. The most popular in the line, says Marcus, is its Riviera Blend, which includes among other ingredients, garlic and lavender.
“Almost everybody is interested in something different,” says Marcus. “That’s one of the reasons why the Riviera Blend is one of our biggest sellers. We are now working on Mediterranean, Southwest and Cajun blends.”
Observers add that consumers are not the only ones that need educating. In a category as vast as this one, retailers can often use a helping hand as well, which is something American Roland Food Corp. makes a priority.
“Our job is to educate the buyer/merchandiser,” says Lisa Kartzman, director, public relations for the New York-based company. “Most have become attuned to the changes in their consumers’ lifestyle and are looking for items that will add flavor.”
Part of that retailer education revolves around product placement. Stacey Miller, business development manager for Litehouse Foods, based in Sandpoint, Idaho, says that is particularly true for the convenience herb category. “Shippers are great to place in the produce department as they are interruptive to the consumer, creating more impulse purchases,” she says. “We also include recipes on our shippers to help shoppers with dinner ideas.” New products in Litehouse’s Instantly Herbs line include sage and thyme.
One way that The C.F. Sauer Co., maker of the Spice Hunter brand, educates retailers is with cuttings. “Cuttings are demonstrations of our products where our retailers can actually taste them and compare them to other products,” says Erin Hatcher, brand manager, Duke’s Mayonnaise, Sauer’s Spices and The Spice Hunter at the Richmond, Va.-based company.
While most may associate the use of spices and seasonings with main course dishes, many consumers are looking toward the category to enhance snack foods, say observers. Take popcorn, for example. According to observers, more and more consumers are popping their own corn.
“Popcorn seasonings have become a popular, easy and fun way to add flavor,” says Brian Taylor, founder and president of Kernel Season’s, based in Elk Grove Village, Ill. “Bold and spicy flavors are ‘hot’ right now, and with our new Buffalo Wing and Cheesy Jalapeno popcorn seasoning flavors, we’ve combined these more complex, bold flavors with real cheese ingredients to create something that is easy to use.”
Milk Chocolate Caramel and Bacon Cheddar seasonings are also new from Kernel Season’s. “All four flavors push the sweet or spicy trend in a new direction with unique blends and versatile flavors that can be used on more than just popcorn,” adds Taylor.
Perhaps not a traditional snack when thinking of adding spices or seasonings is Greek yogurt. However that is exactly what officials for Frontier Natural Products Co-op thought for their Simply Organic brand of Greek Yogurt Dip Seasoning Mixes.
The popularity of Greek yogurt has exploded recently, says Ellen Bouchard, brand manager for the Norway, Iowa-based company. “Rather than take the short view of it as a healthy pre-packaged snack, we looked at it as a healthy staple ingredient that consumers could draw on and combine with our Greek Yogurt Dip Seasoning Mixes to create something at home that is very different and perhaps healthier than all of the fruity, sweetened versions in the dairy case.”