Executives at Pinnacle Foods were looking for a way to reinvigorate their Duncan Hines brand when they came across a simple idea: convenience.
The baking staple, known for its cake mixes and frosting spreads, was suffering through a prolonged period of falling sales and lost market share when officials decided to launch a single-serve item in February — allowing consumers to make a mug cake in their microwave in a minute — to help reinvigorate the product.
Almost immediately, the innovative rollout turned things around for Duncan Hines, with sales spiking during the Easter period by more than 50% after posting historic declines during the past three years.
The reason for the quick success was simple, according to Ross Chapman, senior brand manager for Duncan Hines. The product tapped into the indulgence trend by making it convenient to get a warm, fresh-baked, single-serving treat almost instantly.
"These on-demand desserts don’t require waiting for an oven to heat up, messy pans to wash after mixing everything together, or food waste from cooking an entire cake no one finishes eating."
Senior brand manager, Duncan Hines
"Consumers simply have to pour the baking mix into a mug, mix in milk, or water, and microwave for about a minute," Chapman told Food Dive in an email. "These on-demand desserts don’t require waiting for an oven to heat up, messy pans to wash after mixing everything together, or food waste from cooking an entire cake no one finishes eating."
In today's marketplace, foods and beverages designed for convenience are embracing higher-quality ingredients, appealing taste, a solid nutritional profile, reasonable pricing and time savings — a winning recipe for time-starved consumers who are snacking more and increasingly eating on the go. People are looking for more convenient ways to get a meal or snack, spending half of their food budgets on convenience items, according to a 2016 U.S. Agriculture Department report.
Food Dive interviewed officials at five companies active in the convenience food space to find out why their products were created, what makes the items so convenient and how each has been received. Here's what we learned.
Califia Farms' ready-to-drink coffee
Califia Farms, a roaster, brewer and bottler of ready-to-drink coffee, has attracted a legion of customers who appreciate both the quality and convenience of the product. The company's coffee products are in stores nationwide, helping boost Califia's compound annual growth rate to 161% from 2013-2016.
Brian Lovejoy, the company's general manager of coffee, told Food Dive the idea for ready-to-drink coffee came out of a sudden realization.
"We were selling our almond milks, and it became apparent that people were using it as a whitener for the coffee they were making at home," Lovejoy said. "So we thought we'd make it easier and just put the coffee in what they were making at home."
The early products were so successful that Califia started doubling down with latte, XX espresso, triple shot and coffee with cocoa. He credits single-serving options and resealable packaging for some of the line's popularity, along with the high quality.
"It's all there for grab-and-go," Lovejoy said.
Califia has a new Los Angeles headquarters and is about to open a flagship roastery to help it keep pace with demand. Lovejoy said larger players — DanoneWave, Blue Diamond and Starbucks, among others — have taken notice of the company's growth and are now trying to catch up. Both DanoneWave's SToK brand of ready-to-drink iced coffee and Starbucks' line of ready-to-drink cold-brew coffee debuted last year.
"I think our brand casts a much bigger shadow because of our branding and our reach into conventional grocery," he noted.
Jeff Grogg, founder and managing director of JPG Resources, a food and beverage consulting company, called Califia "a well-run brand" that has succeeded because of its willingness to innovate and try new things.
"Starbucks is loaded with sugar and not very high-end products, and I think there's a lot of opportunity in the space to be dairy-free and to feel a little more premium," he said. "Califia has plenty of cash to build this out exactly the way they want, so with a well-funded, fairly established company, it makes sense to take this step."
ZUPA NOMA's drinkable soup
The ZUPA NOMA line of drinkable soups from Sonoma Brands has expanded beyond its California base, and is now carried in retail outlets such as Wegmans and Whole Foods. It's also developing an online presence with e-commerce powerhouses such as Amazon.
Jen Berliner, director of marketing for ZUPA NOMA, said consumers want wholesome and simple ingredients. They also have a desire to feel good — which means satisfied and energized — after drinking fresh soup and other functional beverages.
"We’ve seen a huge shift toward consumers looking for low-sugar options, as well as high fiber, in all aspects of their diets. ZUPA NOMA was developed to answer this consumer demand."
Director of marketing, ZUPA NOMA
"We’ve seen a huge shift toward consumers looking for low-sugar options, as well as high fiber, in all aspects of their diets," Berliner said in an email. "ZUPA NOMA was developed to answer this consumer demand and work toward affecting a larger consumer shift towards a 'better-for-you' lifestyle."
The brand has attracted consumers because of its portability and benefited from its position as a high-fiber, low-sugar alternative to the other juices that have flooded the market in recent years. Berliner noted the ZUPA NOMA line also is a fresh, portable option to shelf-stable canned soups full of heavier ingredients such as meat or beans.
Sonoma Brands' founder Jon Sebastiani saw a big opportunity to perk up a "big sleepy and tired" category when he founded the company. His gamble seems to have paid off since the line debuted last year. Sebastiani told the North Bay Business Journal he expects $3 million in sales from the Zupa Noma brand this year.
Grogg, the industry analyst, said ZUPA NOMA is following in the footsteps of competitor Tio Gazpacho with its drinkable soups, except that it has more money to help it grow. Still, he expressed concern whether the drinkable soup category has enough momentum to become sustainable for the long term.
"Comparing it to juice is a good way to get investors to give you money, but it's not the same usage occasion or the same consumer mindset, at least not right now," Grogg said. "What they have to prove is whether there's any scale and can they convert juice users."
Suja Juice's cold-pressed juices
A convenience beverage that has proven its staying power is cold-pressed juices. A recent Persistence Market Research study estimated 2016 global sales of cold-pressed juices totaled about $492 million, and could rise to $845 million by 2024. Major players in this space include PepsiCo, with its Naked line; Evolution Fresh, a subsidiary of Starbucks, and Hain Celestial's Blueprint brand.
An upstart that has worked its way into the popular category is San Diego-based Suja Juice, which BevNET has called the leading organic, non-GMO, cold-pressured beverage company in the U.S. It was named to Forbes' Most Promising Companies list in 2014 and 2015.
Jeff Church, Suja Juice's CEO, told Food Dive in an email that the company has always been on a mission to "democratize juice" and get the best-quality organic fruits and vegetables into as many hands as possible.
"Don't get me wrong — I like what they're doing in general. ... The question is, what is Suja really about?"
Founder and managing director, JPG Resources
Suja continues to innovate, introducing in March a line of organic fermented botanical drinks. These products — exclusively available at Whole Foods and on the company's website — come in honeydew melon, cantaloupe, baobab and goji berry flavors. Each 16-ounce drink contains 1 gram of sugar, courtesy of stevia. The company also offers pressed probiotic water, drinking vinegars and kombucha products.
According to Grogg, Suja's original juices were "crazy expensive." He noted the company is certainly producing high-quality items — even though it's a bit hard to figure out where they're headed given the breadth of products they offer.
"Don't get me wrong, I like what they're doing in general. They are moving toward lower-sugar options, the 'salad in a bottle,' but I don't really see that as bringing more people to that use occasion," Grogg said. "People who want pure, fresh juices, they are making them that much more accessible for people who don't want to dirty up their home blender doing it. It will be interesting to see where they're going to hang their hat because their line now is pretty broad with drinking vinegars, kombuchas, probiotic water.
"The question is, what is Suja really about? It's a lot more than it was before," he said.
Prime Foods' protein packs
While Suja has developed several products, Prime Foods has honed its focus on developing protein packs where ingredients such as hummus, peanut butter and cheese are combined with hard-cooked eggs that can be conveniently carried around by a person on the go. Cindy McGarrigle, Prime Foods' vice president of sales, said the innovative products "fit extremely well" into current snacking trends.
"With around 20 grams of protein per serving, these delicious snack packs are a convenient and portable solution to healthy, on-the-go eating," she said. "They appeal to all age groups. Moms love packing them for a quick snack in-between school and sports. Athletes ... love the high-quality protein content."
Grogg said Prime Foods is likely paying attention to companies such as Sargento and its successful Balanced Breaks protein snack line that is chock full of cheese, nuts and dried fruit. However, he said Prime Foods has smartly turned its product into more of a full meal than a snack by adding hard-boiled eggs. For many consumers, they are too busy to sit down for a more substantive meal, but they still want healthy food that will fill them up and keep their hunger at bay until they have time to snack again later.
"I think it's smart, on-trend and very savvy," he said. "It's the kind of snack people are assembling for themselves and thinking it's a little more healthy than just grabbing a Hot Pocket. There's something crunchy, plus cheese and a hard-boiled egg. When I look at those, I think that's what I would want."
Pinnacle Foods' Duncan Hines
Pinnacle's efforts to embrace convenience with its Duncan Hines suite of products has taken a decidedly different path than Prime Foods.
Earlier this spring, the food products giant debuted 18 flavors of its single-serving cake mixes as a way to innovate and diversify the brand's portfolio with a quick and indulgent treat that can be made anytime. The product, which caters to millennials who increasingly value convenience and knowing what's in the foods they eat, contains no artificial preservatives, flavors or colors.
"Duncan Hines is creating a baking revolution by giving consumers the ability to enjoy a freshly baked, individually sized treat in one minute at any time of the day for any occasion," Chapman said.
Grogg said the microwavable one-cup category started a few years ago with Kodiak Cakes, known for its popular line of high-protein, whole-grain Flapjacks On the Go. There is still room for multiple players in the space because the products are easy to make in one serving, plus they offer calorie control and even portability, he said.
"There's probably a [quality] tradeoff there, but it's an acceptable tradeoff. It's better than your other alternative — two-day-old cake," Grogg said. "It makes a lot more sense than I would have thought at first blush."