The most disruptive group of future food consumers, according to bestselling author and self-described futurist Mike Walsh, was born in 2007. “If you understand how an 8-year-old thinks, you’re a long way toward really understanding a transformative change in consumer behavior,” says Walsh, chief executive officer of innovation research lab Tomorrow. Not only was 2007 the year of the global financial crisis; it was also the year Apple introduced the iPhone. Walsh implored the audience to consider the dramatic changes in everyday life as a result of this technology.

“What does this have to do with food?” he asks. “It’s actually essential because when you think about your 8-year-old, how they make judgments about food, about food brands, eating and dining, it’s all connected to that experience of the smartphone.” Already, Instagram has transformed the dining experience, and food packaging is increasingly joining the connected era with scannable codes and interactive labels.

Snack Time

Armed with smartphone and dependent on social media, younger shoppers also represent the most significant group of consumers to watch and respond to when examining the mega trend of snacking.

Convenience store operators can increase sales of prepared food items by connecting late afternoon and evening snacking behaviors with purchases, according to a new study commissioned by Tyson Convenience Foodservice in partnership with Anheuser-Busch. "Snacking is a mega-trend," says Kevin Miller, senior marketing manager for Tyson Convenience Foodservice. "According to a 2014 Technomic snacking study, 51 percent of Americans snack twice a day and 31 percent snack more frequently than they were just two years ago. As a result, the snacking occasion has evolved from incidental to purposeful, creating opportunity for convenience store operators to rethink their late afternoon and evening snack game plan."

The study, which confirmed emotional needs – not just physical needs – are at the core of why people snack, identified a variety of opportunities for convenience store operators to drive growth through prepared food snack sales:

Late afternoon/evening offers potential for incremental prepared food purchases: Although convenience store traffic is highest during morning and lunch dayparts, the study showed half of all recent convenience store snack purchases were between 2 p.m. and 10 p.m. Of those snack purchases, however, only 22 percent included a prepared food item.

Consumers view snacks as an opportunity to reward themselves with indulgence: The study showed that consumers are looking for late afternoon and evening snacks to be a reward and indulgence. The research also indicated that compared to prepackaged snacks, prepared food snacks in convenience stores more strongly fulfill that need.

Highlight fresh prepared food offerings to satisfy, but not fill up: According to the study, even for snack purchases, prepared food quality and freshness were the most important attributes consumers consider. In addition, snacks should be easy to consume on-the-go and satisfy without overfilling.

Target millennial impulse buyers: Operators should concentrate resources to capture this group's attention with strongly branded signage, value-driven offerings and an emphasis on "quick and quality" product attributes.

The Healthy Side of Snacks

Ready Pac Foods has released several simple, yet innovative, on-the-go snack options to its popular Snack Cups and Ready Snax offerings -- all perfect for school lunches and quick and healthy snacking. For indulgent flavors with fewer calories, Ready Snax is an ideal solution for parents and students looking for easy and nutritious options. Ready Snax also offers a simple way to curb appetites and provide a boost of vitamins, all with fewer than 300 calories. They are available in six appetizing flavor combinations, including four brand new options such as Caprese, a bold combination of grape tomatoes, mozzarella, toast chips and basil balsamic dressing at just 150 calories.

New Snack Cup options, like Spinach Parmesan and Veggies (a wholesome blend of carrots, celery, broccoli, and spinach parmesan dip) provide a tasty, convenient and low calorie solution for snacking anytime and anywhere.

“By offering parents and students a wider range of nutritious snacks to choose from, the new Ready Snax and Snack Cups will give parents confidence in selecting a better-for-you option,” says Tristan Simpson, chief marketing officer at Ready Pac Foods.

The Sweet Side of Snacking

When it comes to desserts, there is no shortage of new-product ideas that quickly come and go, much to the chagrin of hopeful in-store bakery operators. For those businesses trying to make sense of the current hodgepodge of trends in the dessert marketplace, Rich Products Corporation has cleverly created a lineup of “mini-hybrid” treats that possess many of the qualities consumers want most from their sweet goods.

For this inventive dessert project, instead of getting caught up in one impulsive fad, Rich’s focused on three larger consumer preferences – for mini desserts, hybrid desserts and natural/no-artificial-ingredient desserts. The company then combined the best elements from each of the concepts into the development of one sensational creation: Our Specialty Sweet Middles – mini-hybrid cookie sandwiches sure to be a hit with shoppers.

Featuring smooth and creamy frosting sandwiched between two soft cookies, Sweet Middles are available in four flavors: Carrot Cake, Chocolate Soufflé, Crème Brûlée, and Oatmeal Raisin Crisp.

As for the importance of branding when it comes to sweet snacks, Nestlé branded dessert ingredients are a simple addition that command premium price points at an instore bakery. According to Mintel Group, 61 percent of consumers are willing to pay more for gourmet or premium products. Instore bakeries can elevate bakery items and drive sales by adding variety and brand familiarity with quality ingredients, including Butterfinger, Crunch and Toll House Morsels.

Convenience Store Consumers

Younger shoppers are more likely to shop at convenience stores than many other store formats, so a number of c-store operators are tweaking their menus and product lineups to appeal to snack-focused younger consumers.

Based in Portland, Oregon, Green Zebra Grocery is pioneering a new model of convenience store offering fresh food, healthy products, and delicious prepared foods cooked from scratch in the store. Green Zebra Grocery has announced the details for their second store in Portland’s Lloyd District. This announcement comes on the heels of a successful $2.5M capital raise by the company to fuel expansion. Green Zebra will be the anchor tenant for Portland’s “newest neighborhood,” known as Hassalo on Eighth, and will open in early 2016. The company plans to open four more Portland locations in the next two years.

Founder and CEO Lisa Sedlar welcomes “the opportunity to bring healthy, local, organic foods to eaters in the neighborhood.” The new Green Zebra will offer local produce, sustainable meat and seafood, a full deli and salad bar, beer and wine, everyday grocery items, a coffee and tea bar, and seating for lunch and dinner. Green Zebra’s first store, in Portland’s Kenton neighborhood, has been open for just under two years and has already had a big impact on the local food economy. They purchase sustainably raised, local and organic products from over 60 Pacific Northwest growers, ranchers, fishers and grocery vendors. The company, whose stated mission is to “increase access to healthy food,” also has plans to open more stores in Portland in the next two years including a location in the Richmond neighborhood.

On a national level, new products like the 7-Eleven Melt artisan sandwiches are changing the way c-store shoppers enjoy fresh foods. In developing the new sandwiches, 7-Eleven evaluated 20 different bread options, measured 1,000 different buns, created 75 prospective sauces, tested multiple cheese varieties for “meltability” and built 50 variations to find that perfect recipe.

The two winning recipes – Italian Melt and Chicken Bacon Ranch Melt – won by a “landslide” according to Kelly Buckley, 7-Eleven, Inc.’s vice president of fresh food innovation. Sold at participating 7-Eleven stores that carry hot foods, the Melt sandwiches’ introductory retail price is $2.99.

Available in 7-Eleven stores’ fresh-foods case, the new sandwiches are toasted to go in the stores for each purchaser. A Melt sandwich typically takes less than a minute to toast and is served warm. 

“Hot foods are really hot at 7-Eleven, both figuratively and literally,” says Buckley. “Hot pizza, chicken wings and tenders, and mini-tacos are all extremely popular with our customers. We wanted to round out our menu to offer a toasted-on-order alternative to our fresh-made cold sandwiches that customers can grab for lunch without taking too much time from their lunch hour. Our parameters were simple – toasted, fast and delicious.”

And who can forget about beverages with today’s millennial and younger consumers demanding more and more choices.

Sheetz recently launched its new Sheetz Bros. Coffee at over 500 stores companywide. The coffee features four signature blends with a light to dark progression, freshly ground in every store and served in a new environmentally-friendly cup.

"This new premium coffee elevates the sensory experience for our customers," says Ryan Sheetz, director of brand strategy. "With four blends, seventeen creamer and flavor options and a full line of latte and mocha beverages, Sheetz customers have over 1,000 different ways to customize their coffee."

The four coffee blends include Breakfast, Classic, Sumatra and French. The beans in the Breakfast, Classic and French Roast blends are sourced from Central and South America and the Sumatra bean is sourced from Indonesia. Amplifying these exceptional beans are brand new grinders in every store as well as modern grinding technologies producing a smoother, more composed taste profile. Every store location also has brand new state-of-the-art grinding and brewing equipment and trained baristas.