At KeHE's most recent TrendFinder event at Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim last month, category managers met with nearly 60 brands for 30 minutes during which companies pitched their products and were scored based on innovation, taste, scalability, packaging, purpose and passion. Of these, 21 brands earned coveted “golden tickets,” which grant them admission to the distributor’s onboarding process and to work with KeHE experts to grow and expand their business and presence in the marketplace.
“It’s a big deal to move to a national distributor like KeHE, right? There are a lot of really large customers that could see your product and come calling tomorrow. So, as a category manager, I want to make sure you’re in a position, as an overall organization, above and beyond just being a great product or a great brand, and that you have the infrastructure, the sales team, the operations, or whatever it might be to jump to that extra level,” Tim Dornfeld, senior category manager at KeHE, told FoodNavigator-USA at Expo West.
He explained the TrendFinder event helps him and other category managers do that.
“It gives us as category managers, in addition to seeing what the innovation is, [a chance to assess] the quality of the company … and so when we’re having these conversations the questions that we are asking above and beyond even telling us about the product are: Why is it on trend? Does it taste great?” and how prepared is the team to meet demand, he said.
Trendspotting: Healthier ways to relax and indulge
Golden ticket winners at Expo West represent some of the hottest trends that Dornfeld and other category buyers were tracking at the show, including increased demand for products that aid relaxation, plant-based everything, sustainable packaging, and international cuisine.
For example, winner Naked Life non-alcoholic cocktails “artfully” distil botanicals to create crafted spirits that celebrate the moment and also help consumers relax – which is a big pain point and marketing opportunity for food and beverage brands.
“Certainly after the last few years, so many people are looking for things to help them relax, and so I think that is why you are seeing a lot more ashwagandha coming into products,” whether it be beverages, snacks, teas or “ways to take the edge off not in the traditional way of consuming alcohol,” he said.
Another winner, Two Spoons Creamery Keto Ice Cream, which offers spoon-soft low-carb ice cream filled with generous mix-ins, exemplifies another major trend that Dornfeld said KeHE is tracking – permissible indulgence.
“People are looking for something that tastes good – maybe something sweet, something that’s salty, but if it can have some functional benefits or [healthier ingredients]," then all the better, Dornfeld said. For example, he explained: "Instead of a potato chip you find something that’s a dehydrated pepper or okra – it is still crunchy, it is still savory, but instead of being a potato chip or something not really natural it’s a whole piece of fruit that has been condensed down."
Sustainability influences ingredient sourcing, product innovation and packaging
Other trends that Dornfeld is watching and saw prominently on display at Expo include “plant-based everything.” He explains that proteins from plants rather than animals helped blaze a trail, and now some harder to mimic options are hitting the market, like plant-based eggs, dairy, and seafood.
Part of what is driving demand for plant-based options is concern about the environmental impact of the food system, which is also playing out in other ways, according to Dornfeld.
“We’re seeing a lot of things around upcycling as well as … reducing the ecological effect of whatever factory farming or meat production,” he said. This trend includes using biproduct that would have been discarded, such as coffee fruit, and repurposing it into new products that a nutritious and delicious, he explained.
Related, is a trend toward more ecological packaging – such as using paperboard instead of plastic, or using compostable options when possible.
For example, 12 Tides encouraged passersby at Expo to ask about its compostable packaging, and Ocean’s Halo proudly displayed new packages for its organic seaweed snacks that ditched a formerly used plastic tray.
Determining what packaging is best for the environment isn’t always obvious, though, according to No Evil Foods, which told FoodNavigator-USA that it switched from compostable packaging to plastic after a lifecycle analysis revealed it was less impactful.
Globe trotting from the dinner table
Consumer demand for global flavors – especially while trapped at home during the pandemic the last two years – also inspired a lot of innovation at Expo West, which Dornfeld says is not only expanding people’s palates, but also marketing opportunities.
Pre-pandemic, most Americans limited “international” cuisine to Italian, Chinese and Mexican, but now they are embracing more Mediterranean dishes, West African flavors, foods from the Philippines and India, Dornfeld said.
He expects tastes to expand more in the coming years as new products, including sauces and meal starters or frozen options, make it easier for shoppers to experiment at home.
Brands interested in learning more about what trends KeHE is tracking or pitching their product at the next TrendFinder event May 2-6 can learn more HERE. The deadline to apply for the May event is April 18.