Capitalizing on Crackers

Crackers carve out a distinguishable niche in delis.

Specialty crackers sold out of the supermarket deli department offer consumers a whole lot that they simply won’t find inside a box in the grocery aisle.

And for savvy supermarket retailers, that means opportunity.

The pluses begin with superb quality. What distinguishes deli department specialty crackers from the grocery aisle varieties, says James R. Anderko, vice president sales and marketing for Venus Wafers, Inc. in Hingham, MA, are such things as packaging, unique flavors, variety and shapes.

Staple types include water crackers, flatbreads, wheat crackers, gluten-free and cheese crisps. Among the best-selling brands are Mariner, CaPeachio’s, Wellington and LaPanzanella.

What is trending? Says Anderko, “Sourdough, sea salt, hot and spicy, cheese crisps, mini-flatbreads and healthy options such as whole grains, plant-based, organic and non-GMO. For companies looking to brand their own crackers, Venus offers private label products.

“On top of being all handmade from certified organic and the highest quality ingredients, our crackers are fresh, usually shipping only a few days out of the oven,” says David Payne, the owner and general manager of Potter’s Crackers in Madison, WI. “We try to work with our customers and don’t always push large orders on them because we want our crackers to be the freshest choice on the shelf. Our flavor profiles are unique, and our recipes are crafted with the best cheeses and wines in mind.”

All of his company’s efforts, Payne says, have gone toward developing what he calls a “worthy” pairing for the finest cheese, sausages, wines and dips in the world. “Coming from Wisconsin, we know our cheese, and we’ve recognized a huge void in the cracker world. Most can’t stand up in flavor, texture or quality to a specialty cracker, and the consumer will recognize that the differences are evident.”

Potter’s markets traditional flatbread-type crackers, bread crisps and a recently re-launched line of oyster crackers. Among its bestsellers are Classic White Crackers and Cranberry Hazelnut Crisps. It also operates a large private-label business and is able to customize packaging to fit its customers’ branding ideals.

What may be less than obvious about this category, Payne suggests, is that there is “a big difference in consumer experience between our crackers and a mass-produced cracker with a two-year shelf life. The quality is apparent to the consumers, and they will keep coming back for them.”

Jennifer Noymer, brand manager for Panos Brands in Rochelle Park, NJ, calls it “interesting and noteworthy to see the usage evolution of a cracker from a carrier for cheese and dips to a better-for-you snack.” The cracker category “is competing for health-conscious consumers as well as curious consumers with a palate for unique flavors.” Panos’ brands KA-ME and Sesmark “are here to serve a variety of consumers—from the entertainer to the busy worker and families seeking tasty, healthier snacks to serve to kids.”

Specialty crackers suppliers such as Panos’ offer what Noymer calls an “elevated snacking experience” that features:

• Premium ingredients and packaging

• Unique, modern, on-trend flavors

• Certified gluten-free varieties

• Non-GMO project-verified ingredients

• Whole-grain certified ingredients

Features and Opportunities

As with other lively product categories that cater to consumers’ taste for the finer things in life, specialty crackers offer retailers lots of opportunities to set their departments apart. They include:

Smaller Players: Opening the doors to smaller, more boutique suppliers in the first place can prove a wise strategy.

Payne says he sees supermarket deli departments doing “a lot right” with specialty crackers “seeing as it is a very large category.” Not surprisingly, he feels they should give smaller companies a shot, even though the price may be a bit more expensive. “They can provide guidance and access to available marketing programs within their organizations.” As a smaller company in the market itself, Payne continues, “We have been trying really hard to support the success of our products on our customers’ shelf.”

Flavors: Payne says that he and his colleagues have noticed what he terms “a huge uptick on our bolder flavors.” Applewood Smoked and Caramelized Onion Crackers have “really taken off in 2019 and 2020. These crackers are unlike anything that I’ve seen on the market, and the consumers that like them really get hooked quickly.”

Executives have likewise seen impressive growth in demand from alternative flours (non-wheat). Potter’s offers a Wisconsin Rye cracker made with a blend of rye and wheat flours and has been working to re-develop a gluten-free option after selling off its recipes for them in 2017. Says Payne, “Our gluten-free line was a huge hit, and I can see those coming back in the near future.”

Asian-style crackers typically have a rice base and come in flavors such as Sesame, Wasabi, Korean BBQ, Seaweed and Sweet Chili, says Noymer. Leading brands include KA-ME, San-J, Hot Kid, Asian Gourmet, Edward and Sons, Amanoya and Laiki. “Gluten-free, rice- and whole grain-based crackers are other staple types of specialty crackers.” These brands include Sesmark, Blue Diamond, Crunchmaster, Carr’s, Milton’s, Dare, Mary’s Gone Crackers, Firehook, La Panzanella, Simple Mills and Back to Nature.

When it comes to Asian crackers, flavors range from spicy and tangy to light and sweet, depending on the regionality of the brand and the cracker type, says Noymer. “Gluten-free is a common attribute in the Asian cracker space as well as crackers that offer umami. Healthier snacking options are high on consumer preferences, and Asian crackers deliver on low-fat, gluten-free, zero trans-fat, low-sugar and more.”

Gluten-free specialty crackers, Noymer continues, offer products “that not only taste good but are also better for you.” Unique flavors such as Jalapeño Cheddar and Chili Lime are trending “and help to spice up snack time.”

Freshness: Shelf-life concerns with these products are always something to be considered. Says Anderko, “At Venus, our shelf life is nine months from the bake date. Venus doesn’t have any issues with shelf life with our existing packaging; I can’t speak for other formats or products.”

Packaging: There have been some notable innovations in packaging in recent years. These, Anderko says, have included clamshells, over-wrapped trays with printed film, vibrant packaging colors and resealable pouches.

The way Potter’s executives approach sales is to keep products fresh, Payne explains. Upgrades in its packaging have allowed the company to extend shelf life to six months on crackers and oysters, and eight months on the bread crisps. Timing is a key element. “We do encourage all of our customers to order more frequently to try to emphasize that Potter’s is the freshest on the shelf.”

Potter’s, Payne says, has always tried to make its packaging unique in style while using as many re-usable, recyclable, biodegradable and environmentally-friendly materials as it can. “All of our cartons are made from post-industrial waste, and are 100% biodegradable and compostable.”

Management is currently looking into cartons that are similarly biodegradable and made from corn starch. These cartons are also bakeable up to 450 degrees F, which will offer the customers more opportunity to re-use them in their own homes. That project is being costed out, and is scheduled to launch in 2021 “if everything lines up right,” Payne says.

Packaging innovation is “constantly evolving” in the specialty cracker category, according to Noymer. Resealable, stand-up pouches are one of the pluses that the KA-ME brand is offering for several of its products. Recyclable cartons and trays, as well as material made from sustainable sources, are also appearing across the specialty cracker category. Sesmark’s outer boxes are recyclable.

Internal Marketing: One thing that Payne and his colleagues have struggled with is accessing internal marketing efforts. “How can we get in the weekly flyer? How can we run a promo, and how often? Our effort in the present and near-future is to get better at building promotional calendars with our customers and figuring out creative ways to grow our sales.”

Merchandising: Specialty crackers should be merchandised together in the cracker set as part of a brand block, at eye level, and in the deli on racks or shelves, Noymer suggests. Additionally, shipper displays with secondary placement are commonly found in stores, especially during high-traffic times, such as holidays. Asian crackers, such as Panos’ KA-ME brand, are best merchandised in the Asian or ethnic set, the gluten-free aisle and in the deli, she adds.

Crackers are most effectively marketed and merchandised along with cheese, Payne insists. “Specialty/deli/cheese has been a great match for us. We’ve found that very few people want to put a $50-per-pound cheese on a Ritz. We are confident that our crackers not only stand up, but they also stand out.” In fact, he adds, they match “perfectly” with the highest-end cheeses in the world “because they are crafted with that intention. Our crackers are noticeably formidable on their own, but they know their role is to elevate the food options around them. They never distract.”

Suggestive Selling: What may at times prove less obvious to some retailers, according to Anderko, is the opportunity to show customers stay-at-home ideas and concepts. “People are at home and looking for ideas for their family snacking and meals, since they aren’t going out to eat.” Cracker and flatbread pairings with cheese, spreads and meats can help build sales. “Plan it for the customer: ‘Purchase Mariner Stoned Wheat crackers, brie and fig spread: $20. Family snack time, stay at home, etc.’”

Deli department managers should also “continue to have displays, and merchandise the crackers by the cheese case,” says Anderko, with displays, signage and stay-at-home entertaining ideas all being used.

When it comes to the best approaches for retailers to marketing and merchandising, Anderko recommends in-store displays, cross merchandising and signage both near and inside the deli’s cheese case. “Locate the crackers and flatbreads near or on top of the cheese/spread/deli meat cases.” Creativity, he has found, is hardly in short supply. “All retailers have good ideas in the deli department.”

Pairing specialty crackers with deli offerings such as cheese, meats and vegetables, will help spur sales, Noymer is convinced. “Sampling, when and where safely possible, is a great way to introduce consumers to new flavors and varieties and leads to higher trial.” Shipper displays that integrate both deli offerings and crackers can help consumers to easily shop both categories and expand their snacking opportunities.

Exemplars: What retailers should not do, Payne emphasizes, is become complacent. “The specialty and deli categories are usually at the leading edge of gourmet. Many ideas that come out of the deli are capitalized on by larger manufacturers. From sliced lunch meat and cheese to pre-packaged cheese trays, the deli is a trendsetter, and I think it’s important for them to remember that in their search for newer or lesser known brands. Even a small order goes a long way for a company our size.”

Examples of retailers to learn from abound. At the grocery level, Payne says, “I think that Central Market (HEB) down in Texas has done a wonderful job sourcing and promotionally supporting smaller brands on their shelves. They have a head foodie that is accessible at each location to work with in setting up demos, and they have an amazing selection of cheeses, meats, etc. to pair our crackers with.”

Other retailers, including smaller cheese shops all around the country, have done an excellent job with branding and design, Payne adds, in terms of how the shops look and the variety of products being offered. Supermarkets would be wise to take note. “I’ve seen many larger grocery chains in the last 10 years essentially install cheese counters in their stores based on the look and feel of a mom-and-pop cheese shop,” he recalls. “Outside of that, I believe they were crucial in creating a ‘buy local’ mindset that has definitely helped our brand in the last decade.”

“For Sesmark, Coborn’s understands that merchandising both crackers and deli items together creates sales, Noymer relates. “Additionally, the selection of mainline crackers is typically adjacent to the deli area, giving consumers a broad selection.” For KA-ME, the AHOLD banners—including Stop & Shop, Giant Food and Giant Food Stores—merchandise crackers in multiple locations throughout the store, including the deli and cracker aisles. “By offering shipper displays during high traffic shopping times, these stores make shopping the category easy.” DB