Wisconsin’s snack market booms with proteins and local foods

Dana Herdeman and her husband, A.J. Girard, make Olympia Granola bars.

Snack season might dovetail with school and sports for some families, but for an increasing number of us, snacks and small meals are the new normal. 

If you grew up in a world of no snacks between meals, or your family sits down for dinner together every night, you might be surprised.  Appetites for snacks have grown, and  consumers are choosing smaller, healthier meals and snacks.

Data from ACNielsen shows that 31% of consumers are having three to four snacks a day, and 14% consume five or more snacks a day. 

Consumers are still eating potato chips, cookies and candy, but a segment of people are hungry for options that are plant based, gluten free, keto or protein filled, or a sustainable option on the go. Producers have responded.

Innovations in packaging and manufacturing have improved the convenience of those grab-and-go options, and a number begin right here in Wisconsin. 

Sargento specializes in cheese

Sargento, based in Plymouth, Wisconsin, is partners with Nabisco for the Balanced Breaks line of snacks. This one has pepper jack and Colby jack cheeses.
Consider Sargento, which has been innovating since 1953 in the cheese capital of Plymouth, where back in the 1920s cheese was traded as a commodity. The company started offering cut and wrapped cheeses in the mid-1980s. Today its innovations take up new space in the refrigerated case. 

“Cheese is one of the most versatile snacks,” said Kristi Jankowski, executive vice president-innovation, “and it is really a top choice across different occasions. Our consumers say they want it morning, afternoon and on the go. There’s only one other category that fits that, which is fruit.”

Jankowski’s been instrumental in the development of new products at Sargento, where the Balanced Breaks line hit shelves in 2015. 

“We started working on it many years before that. We started to see a trend of consumers snacking throughout the day,” Jankowski said. “They wanted it to be convenient and balanced. It was important to us that it be under 200 calories and it was a good source of protein.”

Balanced Breaks has been one of the most successful products in the company’s history, said Portia Young, director of corporate public relations. Cheese and cracker varieties, a pairing with Nabisco, were added in 2021. 

“We have over 20 varieties between the original, nut and fruit, sweet, and cheese and crackers,” Jankowski said. “We really created a new category in the dairy case and filled a need that was there.”

Klement’s sausages sell well

Klement's Big 1 snack sticks pack some protein.A display at Sendik's  details the various kinds of Simply Snackin' items. Simply Snackin' is from Oshkosh.

Of course, Wisconsin is also known for sausage. Sausage snack sticks have exploded in popularity, taking a staid staple of preservation to new audiences. 

Lori Wester, vice president of marketing for Milwaukee’s Klement Sausage Co., notes that total U.S. dollar sales in the growing meat snacks category are around $2.5 billion, according to AC Nielsen data from Aug. 13. While jerky is the largest segment at 47.5%, the snack stick segment is driving the category’s growth.  Sales for meat snacks have grown by double digits.  

“This growth rate is far outpacing other snacks like potato chips, snack nuts, cookies and even candy. Interesting fact: Milwaukee is a snack stick market,” Wester added via email. “The snack sticks segment is larger than jerky.” 

She notes Klement’s declared 2022 “The Year of the Snack Sticks” and this year launched new 1-ounce meat and cheese snack sticks, the 1.87-ounce Big 1 snack sticks, plus easier-to-open packaging for the 1-ounce, 3.5-ounce and 7.2-ounce snack sticks. 

Of course, sausage and meat snack options are produced by others throughout the state. Products finding fans nationwide include snacks from Usinger’s, Old Wisconsin, Jack Link’s, Johnsonville, and Simply Snackin’ in Oshkosh. 

Entrepreneurs interested in selling snacks have an advantage in Wisconsin. In 2017, the University of Wisconsin-Madison started what was apparently the first such university course in the world, a short course aimed at nutrition and snack bar manufacturing. The course, next offered in March, typically fills to capacity. 

Olympia Granola hails from Riverwest

Olympia Granola Bars from owners AJ Girard and Dana Herdeman are shown.

One of the companies that’s attended the UW course is Olympia Granola of Milwaukee. When AJ Girard and his wife, Dana Herdeman, moved production of their Olympia Granola trail bars and coffeehouse bars from Green Bay to Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood last year, his experience with the UW-Madison program helped reinforce his interest in creating a product with local ingredients, including Stone Creek coffee.

“Our honey, that comes from Kallas. Our oats come from La Crosse Milling, which does gluten-free,” said Girard. “We didn’t want to use any syrups or anything. Every bar out there has brown rice, tapioca syrup or high fructose corn syrup. We wanted to take it back to the roots and use 100% USA honey. There is a lot of honey that comes from China or Asia and intermediary countries and get listed as organic. …  It helps that Kallas comes from Milwaukee.” 

“There are so many manufacturers that produce a high level of snacks and food in general here,” Girard said. “People overlook Wisconsin, view us as a flyover state, but when you drill it down, there are a lot of companies that have operations here because our workforce is highly skilled and willing to work.”

This year Wisconsin State Fair highlighted that with a contest for snack bars, and Olympia Granola participated. “We won third place,” Girard said. “We’re also part of Something Special from Wisconsin, and 27 of the 41 winners were part of that, as well.”

Field + Farmer focus is plant based 

At Field + Farmer, which produces fresh snack bars that feature a fruit or vegetable, Isabella Chia focuses on sustainability and upcycling produce for the company. The bars, manufactured in northern Illinois, use oats from La Crosse Milling Co. in Wisconsin.

Sustainability and local ingredients are at the heart of Field + Farmer, said Isabella Chia, the company’s executive vice president and managing director. Field + Farmer was co-founded by Megan Klein, a Milwaukee-area native and graduate of Divine Savior Holy Angels High School.

Based in Chicago area, the company harvests from the Midwest and creates plant-based dips, dressings and the newest addition to the lineup: snack bars in five flavors. In August, bars were added to 101 Costco stores in the Midwest, including all Wisconsin locations. Field + Farmer’s snack bars are also available at Whole Foods in Wisconsin. 

“We want to remain true to the goal we set for ourselves, that we only use ingredients that you recognize and can pronounce,” Chia said, noting the oats come from La Crosse Milling and every product features fresh produce from Michigan, Wisconsin or Illinois.

“All of our bars, they are going to be desserts or sweet treats you are often familiar with, carrot cake, cocoa brownie, apple pie, PB&J, and peanut butter cookie. Each features a fresh fruit or vegetable as the first ingredient. For cocoa brownie, the first ingredient is beet.” 

Supernola snacks start in Jackson

Cindy Poiesz, founder of Supernola, sees Wisconsin as an ideal location in the food world. Supernola’s six varieties of snacking clusters are all produced in Jackson.

“While the market in Wisconsin is different than other parts of the U.S., such as the coasts, the environment for producing our snacks here is ideal,” Poiesz said. “We specialize in dehydration, so the cold, dry winters create an ideal environment for creating our dehydrated snacks and different products we manufacture. Additionally, there are so many packaging and equipment suppliers right here in the state for quick, local delivery that also supports the local economy.”

GLK Foods makes pickled vegetables

OhSnap! pickled vegetables, in single-serving pouches, is the product with the most growth for GLK Foods of Appleton.

In fact, food manufacturers have long found this region to be ideal, including GLK Foods (Great Lakes Foods), based in Appleton. 

Sauerkraut has been the company’s staple for decades, and fermented foods have surged in popularity. Still, the biggest growth in recent years has been the company’s OhSnap! line of pickled vegetables in single-serving pouches introduced in 2015.

After 18 months of development, GLK is adding pickled fruits,  starting with pineapple and apple.

 “They are all developed and manufactured in Wisconsin,” said GLK Foods President Ryan M. Downs, the fourth generation in the business. “We built a new plant in 2019 for OhSnap!, and it is already too small.”

Innovations in snacks may be inspired by the on-the-go way Americans are eating for convenience, but familiarity and flavor make a difference. 

“Everyone knows what is healthy,” Downs said. “It has to taste great, or they won’t buy it. The leading item for us is the (OhSnap!) Dilly Bite, taking something that is familiar. People know what pickles are, and add convenience but no mess because there is no brine added to the pouch.” 

OhSnap! is rolling out the pickled fruit, shipping to Sendik’s and eventually Target, along with the line of pickled vegetables.

Mother and daughter founded GoMacro 

Plant-based GoMacro bars are from Viola, Wisconsin.

Back in 2004, Jola Sonkin and her mother, Amelia Kirchoff, started plant-based brand GoMacro to fill a need. Kirchoff had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and in search of a plant-based, macrobiotic diet, she developed the bars.

Today, their certified organic, vegan, gluten-free, kosher, non-GMO and soy-free bars are distributed nationwide. In 2019, they increased their space by adding 19,200 square feet to their headquarters in Viola, Wisconsin.

Good Foods, with manufacturing in Pleasant Prairie, makes Avocado Mash, which recently gained distribution at Target.
Good Foods creates dips, spreads

As the interest in plant-based options grew, so, too, did the options at Good Foods in Pleasant Prairie. Founded in 2008, the company makes plant-based dips and avocado spreads without preservatives and with a goal of becoming a zero-landfill-waste facility.

Good Foods products are available at Pick N’ Save, Target, Costco and Fresh Thyme. This year, it launched single-serving cups, and a dairy-free roasted garlic dip will be launched in the fall, not available at all locations yet. Select products are available at the online store, shop.goodfoods.com.

Kristine Kierzek, Journal Sentinel

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