The relatively new owners of the historic H.J. Heinz brands had added a little Sriracha flavor to the iconic ketchup line and introduced a new mustard — promoting the condiment collection with a fleet of happy weiner dogs during the Super Bowl this year.
They even wandered into new territory with a line of barbecue sauces introduced in April, featuring flavors such as Kansas City Sweet & Smoky, Texas Bold & Spicy and Carolina Tangy Vinegar.
Next on the to-do list: Stir things up in the relatively boring pickle aisle.
Americans spend about $750 million a year on shelf-stable pickles annually, with the category growing to $1 billion when refrigerated versions are tossed in, said Andrew Deckert, marketing lead for Heinz Heritage Brands. “It’s a very large, very mature category,” he said.
Which is industry speak for a sales area that’s valuable but not growing.
It’s not shrinking either. “The pickle category has been flat over the last five years,” said Mr. Deckert, who claims big market brands such as Vlasic and Claussen, haven’t been doing enough innovating to spark some excitement.
Kraft Heinz, the company formed last summer when Pittsburgh’s Heinz merged with Chicago-based Kraft Foods Group, is introducing Sweet & Spicy Chips and the Spicy Garlic Chips later this week at the Picklesburgh festival on the Rachel Carson Bridge, Downtown.
The company said this is its first new pickle chip flavor introduction in more than 50 years.
In a nod to the Heinz brand’s hometown market, O’Hara grocer Giant Eagle is getting a headstart on national retailers and is scheduled to start selling the new flavors in its stores on Friday. Retailers such as Walmart and Target will get the new pickles in August, Mr. Deckert said.
The Heinz brand already has seven products made in Holland, Michigan, including the hamburger dill chips and the whole dills that Mr. Deckert said have been sold for more than a century. Bread & butter chips were introduced in the 1920s — another indication of how stable the shelves in the pickle department can be.
Tradition that leads to perhaps a little too much stability is a common issue across many parts of the food industry, as analysts have noted in recent reports on Kraft Heinz.
In a Standard & Poor’s report in May, the authors noted they’d factored into their business risk assessment “our view that the company participates in a mature, low-growth and highly competitive industry that has had difficulty meeting changing consumer tastes and preferences.”
On the other hand, the report noted Kraft Heinz benefits from the increased scale and diversity created by merging two industry giants with products distributed all across the nation’s grocery stores. Kraft even brought its own pickle brand to the marriage — Claussen -— but Mr. Deckert said refrigerated lines like that are generally not considered competitors for the same consumers as shelf-stable lines like Heinz.
For its pickle push, Kraft Heinz tested a number of flavors with two sweet entries winning the most votes. The company hopes they’ll appeal to a growing population of younger Americans now doing their own grocery shopping.
“They are looking for new and exciting ways to make food fun and different,” Mr. Deckert said, using examples like Burger King’s jalapeno and cheese burger and Wendy’s spicy asiago ranch chicken sandwich as examples of the kind of things coming to market.
“Consumers are looking for flavor,” he said.
The new Heinz pickles also claim to have no artificial flavors, colors or sweeteners — another decision meant to appeal to millennials.
Even if the name Heinz is known best across much of the country for ketchup, the historic brand has long been linked with pickles, too. The pickle was the Sharpsburg-founded H.J. Heinz Co’s second product after horseradish. And it had pride of place for decades on the Heinz ketchup label — until it was plucked out of its high profile site in favor of a tomato back in 2009.
A new website, heinzpickles.com, created to promote the expanded line claims that more than 100 million pickle pins — tiny green plastic keepsakes that likely reside in numerous Pittsburgh household drawers — have been produced over the years.
Mr. Deckert is keeping an eye on pickle dining trends. He said consumers still like to plop them on “host food with buns” — such as hamburgers, of course — but there’s also growing interest in snacking.
That apparently includes deep fried pickles showing up on the appetizer menu at restaurants.
Teresa F. Lindeman: email@example.com or 412-263-2018.
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