As nearly 16,000 people inundated Chicago last week for the 25th Sweets & Snacks Expo, iconic food giants such as Hershey, PepsiCo and Mondelēz International debuted many of their new or signature offerings with large displays and prominent signage.
But some of the products on display at the trade show and conference went beyond the signature chocolates, gummies, pretzels and chips these giants are known for. Hidden among the close to 700 exhibitors and 4.5 acres of candy and snack innovations were some novel product offerings their creators hope will catch on with consumers and come to define the category in the future.
Some of the offerings are new. Some have been around for a few years. The one thing they have in common is they're either looking for their big break or to further expand in a food space deluged with choice.
Here are five brands that caught our attention:
Here comes the sun
Inspiration can come in the most unique places and Jeff Noble’s experience is no exception.
Two years ago, the executive at Mooney Farms, a processor of sun-dried tomatoes, was walking a Michigan golf course chewing on one of the company’s products when an idea came to him. With the right flavor and texture, he thought the company could develop and sell a tomato-based jerky.
Just two months after pitching the idea to owner Mary Mooney, the company behind the Bella Sun Luci brand launched the offering in the market. The product is available in two flavors: Sriracha and Teriyaki & Cracked Pepper. Each non-GMO serving has six grams of protein and fiber.
“We have a lot of positive benefits consumers want: a plant-based, fiber, jerky, and a fairly straightforward clean label,” said Noble, vice president of sales and innovation at Mooney Farms.
Despite a recent uptick in distribution, the product’s launch has been slowed by retailers’ reluctance during COVID-19 to bring new offerings to shelves and recent supply chain headaches. Still, with millions in annual sales, Mooney can afford to wait and so far remains firmly behind the brand extension.
“We got the strength to continue to push through and make this happen,” he said. “A good idea is a good idea. And you can't give up on it.”
Smog and toxic waste infiltrate candy
A look at Candy Dynamics' offerings could cause even the most adventurous consumer to pause: Sour Smog Balls, Toxic Waste Hazardously Sour Candy and Slime Licker Sour Rolling Liquid Candy.
But despite the names, the Indiana-based company is “posting healthy sales and brand awareness” as its core audience of younger consumers, influenced by social media platforms like TikTok, gravitate toward its products.
“They're different, unique. They are a little edgy,” said Laura King, Candy Dynamics' president.
The company's first launch came in 2001 with Toxic Waste Hazardously Sour Candy — a treat packaged in a circular yellow drum that today remains its top seller. Each hard candy has an initial wave of sour before the consumer reaches its super-sour inside core.
Candy Dynamics has since expanded into other treats like Slime Licker Sour Rolling Liquid Candy that the consumer moves back and forth on their tongue. It also is licensing its brands into plush items, lip balms, toys and other items.
To promote its offerings and connect with kids, Candy Dynamics uses cartoon characters like Hazmat the Lab Rat, Mr. Toxie Head and Professor Sauernoggin to draw attention to issues such as recycling, safe handling and proper disposal of hazardous waste and protecting the water supply.
“It might be edgy names, but there's a messaging behind it,” King promised.
Iced, iced coffee
As consumers look for novel ways to enjoy their favorite products, a young upstart with a familiar connection has taken that concept to a new extreme — starting with coffee.
40 Below, which was started by Dippin’ Dots founder Curt Jones as a treat to his wife who enjoys coffee, takes Arabica beans and dairy-free creamers made from coconut or almond milk. It then quickly freezes them using liquid nitrogen cooled to minus 320 degrees Fahrenheit.
The result is little beads similar to the ice cream.
"We are just trying to take people's favorite food and beverage items and turn them into healthier, all-natural, fun novelty products," said Shantez Riley, national sales manager with 40 Below Company.
Later this summer, the four-year-old company will debut The Fruity Whey — strawberry, blueberry and other fruits mixed with the dairy byproduct and a small amount of sugar — to create a beaded mix that could serve as a substitute for a popsicle.
It’s also debuting nonalcoholic mocktails under the Island Rox brand in flavors like piña colada and strawberry daiquiri. Tea is not far behind, Riley said, and the 40 Below Company also is considering a higher-protein option of The Fruity Whey aimed at people who like to work out.
“There's a lot of opportunities for growth ... in a lot of different markets,” she said.
Have your drink and eat it too
Alcohol has traditionally been served in a glass or bottle but more consumers could soon be saying "cheers" with a slice of cake.
The Great Spirits Baking Company in St. Louis is adding liquor from brands including Guinness, Baileys, Jack Daniel's and Pallini to make its decadent cakes. It also adds alcohol to sweets such as doughnuts and cheesecakes.
The company launched after executives — many with previous experience working in the beer industry — purchased a company that had an exclusive license to make Jack Daniel's cakes.
Great Spirits Baking quickly reformulated the offerings, redid the packaging, added some new partnerships and took what was then two SKUs and expanded it to more than 40.
“People are looking for something different,” said Andrea Bartold, the director of sales strategy at Great Spirits Baking and a former AB InBev employee. “This is something that the bakery department has not seen before.”
The products, which typically contain such a small amount of alcohol that they are defined as nonalcoholic, are flying off the shelf, according to the company. Sales doubled in 2021 and are on track to repeat that feat this year, Bartold predicted. The company is on the verge of adding other alcohol brands to its big-name roster.
Despite the fast growth, she said Great Spirits Baking has struggled at times to get retailers and other distributors to try the product during the pandemic as they prioritize keeping pre-existing items stocked on shelves.
“It's something that is new and kind of outside of their comfort zone,” Bartold said. “But as we're getting more trial and it's successful, then we're getting more repeat buyers and adding larger customers.”
Bacon on the go
Bacon is commonly associated with pancakes, waffles or eggs on a weekend breakfast plate. But a Minnesota meat products maker is trying to turn the pork-based offering into a go-to snack for long-distance runners, bikers and other consumers venturing away from the comforts of home.
Riffs Smokehouse, a seller of BBQ sauces and frozen meats, is selling individually wrapped pieces of bacon available in five novel flavors designed to separate it from conventional jerky: Raspberry Chipotle, Red Curry, Sweet, Habanero Heat, and Sweet & Spicy.
The bacon, which can be warmed in the microwave for five seconds or eaten as is, initially came in about 40 flavors that could be paired with beer at festivals and other gatherings, but Riff's narrowed what it sells in retail to the most popular varieties. It also abandoned a bamboo skewer that came with the bacon because it wasn't ideal for places like prisons and gas stations.
Mason McElvain, director of quality at Riffs, said the company's product is smoked and cooked, while lacking the dryness and overly salty flavor commonly associated with other shelf-stable bacon.
"You have Spam. You have jerky, and what else? This is a much better option for someone looking to do something new," McElvain said. "People go 'Ooh bacon,' they're excited about it and the flavors are different."
Surprisingly, one group of consumers that are turning to Riffs' bacon are long-distance runners and bikers who are attracted by its portability as well as the quick rush of sugar, fat and meat that comes from consuming it, he said. For consumers looking to avoid sugar, the company is working on an option without the sweetener.