There's no accounting for taste, but snack makers try to feed it
The decision by Weilong Delicious Global Holdings, a maker of spicy snacks, to seek an initial public offering in Hong Kong underscores the growing prominence of between-meal munchies in the Chinese food industry.
Weilong, based in the central province of Henan, didn't disclose a fund-raising target in its IPO filing last month. The company, whose products include popular chili-pepper-coated bread sticks, reported 2020 profit of 819 million yuan (US$126 million) on revenue of 4.1 billion yuan.
Euromonitor forecasts the snack industry in China will grow an average 5.7 percent in the next four years to 453 trillion yuan.
Even more impressive than the expanding size of the market is the competitive zeal to come up with new tastes in snacks. Spicy, salty, sweet, sour, fishy, fruity and liquor-laced. The combinations seem limitless.
Shanghai accountant Nancy Zhang, who purchases fresh food for her home cooking, said she's noticed how fruit-flavored snacks in local supermarkets come out with flavors tuned to the changing seasons.
"I have a special preference for spicy snacks," she said. "And there are always new flavors to choose from in potato chips, seaweed crisps and even chocolate ice cream."
Chinese red bayberry is the latest fruit flavor featured in Bright Food's ice popsicles this year. The dairy group spent a half year of research to find a suitable product for bayberries grown in the city of Xianju in Shanghai's neighboring Zhejiang Province.
Ma Zhongyuan, project manager of Bright Dairy Co, said the company will be combining more seasonal fruit and other flavors in its ice creams in the coming year.
Last year it offered a spicy chocolate ice cream for a limited test period. It was popular enough to become a mainstream product.
Some snack makers are trying to expand by turning their products into trendy souvenirs.
White Rabbit candy, a popular milky taffy that prominently featured at celebrations in the 1980s, unveiled two new offerings at last week's Shanghai exhibition of time-honored brands.
In tandem with Chinese tourist icons Oriental Pearl TV Tower and the Summer Palace, it developed candy gift boxes featuring the two landmarks.
Not to be outdone, Bright Food rolled out a series of products in collaboration with the 10th China Flower Expo now underway on Shanghai's Chongming Island. They include snacks such as special buttermilk and flower-shaped ice creams.
Shanghai-based Yuyuan Inc's Li Gao Tang brand of pear syrup candy is also putting a creative new face on traditional candy. It launched a pear syrup lollipop, which has proven successful with youngsters.
Shao Wan Sheng, another old Shanghai brand, known for its pickled and liquor-laced foods, introduced two products at the exhibition: rice wine-flavored glutinous-rice packets known as zongzi, and wine-soaked shrimp.
"Around 90 percent of our liquor-laced crawfish products were sold online in 2020," said Ge Ting, general manager of Shanghai Shaowansheng Foodstuffs Co. "This year, online retail platforms remain our major channel for the sales of new products."
Traditional Chinese foods sold in ready-to-cook or ready-to-heat formats are also experimenting with new tastes.
According to a joint study by Alibaba's Freshippo grocery chain and global consulting firm Roland Berger, regional flavors of China are finding a wider audience as new marketing trends cater to expanding consumer demand.
Among the adventurous new tastes tempting Freshippo shoppers are freeze-dried lilies, donkey-hide gelatin, and coix seed black sesame.
New snack flavors are also permeating the personal-care market, including cola-flavored toothpaste, peach and oolong tea-scented body creams, and grapefruit shampoo.
Multinational food and beverage vendors are making sure they aren't left behind in the new taste trends.
Mauro De Felip, general manager of Ferrero China, said his company plans to add biscuits to its product line in one or two years, and chocolate with multiple other flavors.
Young consumers will remain the main target of its chocolate bar Kinder Bueno, with sales doubling this year from last. A mini-sized Kinder Bueno will also hit the market in the coming months.
Saturn Bird, a local instant coffee vendor, is offering coffee-flavored nougat and also planning to open offline shops in Shanghai to promote its brand.
Adrian Ho, senior vice president of coffee at Nestlé China, said his company is aware of the influence of younger consumers and still sees huge potential for those who have not yet tried coffee.
It's also responding to the public's hunger for more flavors with sucrose-free option added to its instant coffee line and a new blend of Arabica and robusta coffee beans launched earlier this year.
Change is also transforming the biscuit and crispy-cracker segment.
Peng Yue, marketing director of Tmall Food and head of its snack-food business, noted that 260 million consumers born between the mid-1990s to early 2010s prefer online shopping channels in trying new tastes with specific geographical origins.
For example, new drinks and snacks are being made from popular milk tea flavors such as peach-flavored oolong tea.
Walmart's membership chain Sam's Club said it more than doubled snack sales last year, driven by lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic and by new products touting regional flavors.
Wu Shuming, director for snack sourcing at Sam's Club, said the retailer has introduced seaweed crunch, cheese cod sausages with corn mix, and freeze-dried durian, among other new popular launches.
It has also worked with local vendors to develop snacks such as braised abalone and finger-sized protein sticks.
US-based multinational Mondelez is launching a savory vegetable-flavored soda cracker under its Pacific brand, and new Tuc crispy crackers with a spicy, crawfish flavor.
Ritz Crackers has introduced cheese yoghurt flavor fillings, and the popular American sandwich cookie Oreo added a sakura-flavored version last year, and strawberry sakura and sweet-sour plum flavors this year.