Pierce Hollingsworth

“Can we make it one-handed?” Not quite a Clint Eastwood quote, but good enough for Steve Sanger, chairman and chief executive of General Mills, Inc. The statement gained considerable notoriety when it appeared in the Wall Street Journal of July 18, 2000, and it echoes to this day as a battle cry for the development of hand-held foods.

With good reason—more than 15% of all meals are eaten in the car by America’s mobile millions. These so-called “street foods” now range far beyond traditional burgers to specially designed tortilla wraps, hot-dog shaped burgers, squeeze yogurt, cereal and milk breakfast bars, salads in a cup, and a veritable renaissance for traditional snacks. In fact, the term “in-between meal snacking” has become obsolete, since most Americans graze all day and view traditional meals as special occasions.

Companies such as snack leader Frito-Lay, Inc., for instance, have fed this trend with prepackaged sauce-and-chip packages that are designed to offer what consumers have been crafting from separate ingredients for years.

Nowhere is the character of street foods more visible than along America’s interstate highway system, where convenience stores have become shrines for grab ’n’ go concepts without regard for conventional retail/foodservice distinctions. Larger units now incorporate at least one fast-food franchise, along with delis, mini-mart groceries, and, of course, gas. Here, the street-food trend has breathed new life into such lethargic old-line products as beef jerky. The meat-snack category has grown at a phenomenal 25% rate since 1999. The broader category of traditional snacks (potato chips, popcorn, pretzels, tortilla chips, etc.) is growing at an annual rate in excess of 6%, reaching nearly $21.7 billion in 2000. Add cookies and crackers, and it’s a $32-billion market. 

Portability and packaging are only part of the success equation in this increasingly competitive market. Taste and nutrition also are important. 

Cereal marketers such as General Mills have introduced snack bars that are positioned directly against their venerable cereal brands. Honey Nut Cheerios with Milk—where the milk is a white filling—shares shelf space with fruit and grain bars, nutrition bars, sports/energy bars, diet bars, granola bars, candy bars, and cookies. 

Cereal share leader Kellogg Co. is taking a slightly different approach in expanding the bar concept. Its Krave bar touts a candy bar taste with a sport/energy bar nutritional profile. 

Candy giant Hershey also is eyeing the snack category. “I think everybody is realizing that within that $50-billion snack market, the line between the segments is blurring quite a bit,” Hershey chairman and CEO Rick Lenny recently told analysts. 

Consumer perceptions about the role of nutrition are the trickiest card in this equation, as the public has different expectations for different. It’s a tricky balance that few manufacturers fully understand. 

Most consumer surveys reflect growing consumer awareness of nutrition, but they also want great taste, convenience, comfort, and variety in measures related to the eating experience. Some examples:
More than a quarter of consumers surveyed by the American Dietetic Association indicate they “have made significant adjustments in their eating behavior to achieve a healthy, nutritious diet.” This number has been climbing since the first survey in 1991, while 85% say diet and nutrition are important to them personally.

What’s holding back those who haven’t adjusted their diet? Nearly half say they don’t want to give up favorite foods.

The American Dietetic Association states that “Despite intense interest among nutrition researchers, dietetics professionals and food manufacturers, functional foods do not enjoy the same level of awareness among the general public.”

No surprise that Americans like to spend time in the kitchen—just not too much. This has been a boon to fix-it-fast foods such as Stouffer’s Slowfire Classics, Campbell’s Supper Bakes, and Ragu Express pasta dishes.

Nearly two-thirds of American adults want to lose 20 lb, according to NPD Group, an all-time high for respondents in the company’s “Annual Report on Eating Patterns in America.” Ironically, the company found that even though weight is on the minds of more Americans, respondents are less concerned with fat, cholesterol, salt and other nutritional issues than they were in the ’90s. 

Add it up and it seems that America’s overweight, highly mobile consumers want it all. But what that means today could change tomorrow, creating a market for companies that pay heed to a true Clint Eastwood quote, this from Heartbreak Ridge: “Improvise, adapt, overcome . . .”

Contributing Editor
President, The Hollingsworth Group, Inc.
Wheaton, Ill.