Though the March Natural Products Expo West conference and trade show were cancelled this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, New Hope Network (producers of the event) hosted a virtual webinar this month to share their annual report on industry trends. Leaders from New Hope Network, SPINS and Whipstitch Capital shared insights on natural product sales trends. 

“We definitely believe that this unfortunate health crisis is going to bring the bright spot of making health and wellness more mainstream,” says Kathryn Peters, executive vice president of business development at SPINS (who also are scheduled to present at TFA’s FERMENTATION 2021 conference next May). 

The report typically encompasses sales numbers for the previous year, but SPINS included insights from short- and mid-term consumer behaviors during the COVID-19 crisis.

Read on for five takeaways for the fermentation industry from the data.

1. Thanks to Mass Market Saturation, Natural Sales Slow in 2019

Sales of the natural and organic industry in the United States slowed in 2019, growing 5.3% to $230.7 billion in sales.

The slowing growth signals an optimistic takeaway: mass market saturation. There are more natural products on retailer’s shelves than ever before.

“Despite the slower growth, the mass market channel – which includes big box retailers, large grocers like Walmart – that channel added 6.5 billion in new sales last year, which is very significant,” says Carlotta Mast, senior vice president for New Hope Network.

Sales data over the last decade shows the natural industry has grown from being a small player in the consumer products industry with only 11% of sales to a larger player with 20% of sales.

“We’re not a little kid anymore – we’ve kind of grown up,” says Nick McCoy, the managing director and co-founder of Whipstitch Capital.

Natural brands are getting larger, McCoy notes, experiencing an average of 10% growth two years after their start date. Growth of smaller brands is outpacing growth of larger brands. Brands in the 1,000-2,000 sales spots grew at a rate of 6.1% in 2019, while the top 1,000 selling brands grew at a rate of 5.2% in 2019.

2. Americans Want Functional, Science-Backed Products

Despite slower industry growth, the natural, functional food and beverage industry grew two times faster than conventional food and beverages in 2019. Functional products improve overall health by providing additional nutrients. Fermented food and drink fall into the functional category. 

Functional food and beverage sales grew 5.3% in 2019, hitting $71.4 billion in sales.

Consumers are purchasing products with ancient wisdom, a trend defining the nutrient-dense, time-honored food that is made of simple, clean ingredients.

“This has been an underlying driver of the industry for many years,” Mast says. Consumers are “seeking science-backed health and wellness offerings positioned to address modern conditions.”

Consumers want optimized products that address eye health, stress support and, especially in today’s health climate, immunity.

The natural industry experts expect functional foods to continue to grow, fueled this year by the COVID-19 pandemic.

3. Coronavirus Outbreak Causing Big Boost in Sales

During the week America went into quarantine during the coronavirus outbreak, 15 million additional buyers bought natural products.

“At the end of the day, virtually everything sold,” Peters says. A key trend: “Natural products were still in demand; they did outsell all products.”

Peters notes some of the natural products may have sold because they were the last available product on the shelf. Time is the best indicator if these shoppers will convert to regulars. But those products are now on consumer’s shelves – and a lot product trial is happening across the country, trial that is an expensive element of product development. “It’s a huge opportunity for this industry,” Peters says.

“What we’re finding as a real highlight for the industry is the consumer values that built and grew the natural and organic industry for years and years are holding strong in the face of COVID-19,” Mast says. “One hypothesis of what the world may look like in a post-COVID era is that consumers will increasingly prioritize health and wellness…A number of long term macro forces and trends that have driven growth of the natural and organic products industry up until now position us well for a world in which consumers increasingly prioritize health and wellness.”

As unemployment soars and consumers cut back on expenses, Peters does not expect economic pressures will slow down natural product sales.

“Our bodies are our best line of defense, and consumers are realizing this,” she adds. “While comfort food is important in this phase, we are still seeing a strong influence of health and nutrient-dense food.”

A survey of consumers during the week of April 13, 2020 found that 77% say personal health is most important to them today than it was in 2019. In addition, 43% say eating healthy food is more important today than it was in 2019.

Sales of kombucha, for example, plateaued in 2019, after years of positive growth. But during the peak coronavirus grocery stock up period, refrigerated kombucha sales were up 28%, refrigerated pickle and marinated vegetables were up 58% and refrigerated yogurt sales were up 39%.  

The coronavirus is increasing challenges for the industry, too. Supply chains are disrupted, there is a lack of new product development and a dearth of investment capital.

“That is slowing the flow of innovation, which we can expect to affect the flow of offerings to the market later this year and into 2021,” Mast says.

4. E-Commerce Sales Growing Fast, Driven by Natural Shoppers

In 2019, e-commerce sales accounted for only 4% of total natural product sales. In 2020 so far, e-commerce has generated almost $10 billion in sales. Estimates put total e-commerce sales at 17% in 2020.

“E-commerce is the big story for 2020 with COVID-19 and the rapid increase of consumers buying online,” Mast says.

Interestingly, natural shoppers were using e-commerce channels at a higher rate than regular shoppers.

5. Sustainability is of Greater Importance

Early consumer research indicates an aspirational trend: COVID-19 may change consumer’s viewpoints to become more sustainability focused.

During the week of April 13, 2020, a survey of consumers found that 67% said environmental health is more important to them today than it was in 2019. Purchasing behaviors that support environmental causes are also on the rise. Of more importance to consumers in 2020 verses 2019: food waste (36%), buying plant-based foods (29%), buying responsibly sourced meat, seafood and dairy (26%), buying organic (22%), and buying products with environmentally-based packaging (18%).

Sustainable packaging “which is really the Achilles heel to the natural and CPG industry,” Mast says, is becoming of greater important to consumers as single-use packaging is demonized. Brands are also looking for ways to keep their waste out of landfills, upcycle ingredients and putting byproducts back into circulation.

Sales of functional foods and beverages — products that provide additional nutrients — grew 5.3% to $71.4 billion in sales in 2019, at a growth rate two times faster than conventional products. Sales of function foods and beverages were $68 billion in 2018. (New Hope Network)

The coronavirus outbreak forced coffee prices to spike in April, with coffee futures estimated to rise 15% in May. Though prices are high, coffee farmers internationally are suffering. The COVID-19 lockdown in Colombia is disrupting coffee exports, the lockdown in Brazil is causing container shortages and a locust invasion in East Africa is hurting harvests. Despite rising prices, consumers are still purchasing coffee. CNBC analysts suggest the price increase could be short lived, as coffee shops reopen again and the public begins consuming stockpiled coffee supplies.

Read more (Food Dive)

Kheedim Oh never aspired to start a food brand. The self-described “accidental entrepreneur”  began Mama O’s Premium Kimchi in Brooklyn in 2007, in the midst of the Great Recession. With just $50 to his name, he started hauling giant jars of  homemade kimchi to retailers on his skateboard. 

Thirteen years later, Oh has grown the brand  into one of the top fermented kimchi sold in the United States. Handcrafted kimchi is a labor-intensive food craft, but Oh doesn’t cut corners. He has never received a dime of funding and employs only a small team that uses his mother’s kimchi recipe.

“Everything we do is the time-honored, traditional way. From the experience of having to do it myself for so long, I’ve learned how to be as ruthlessly efficient in doing the steps to make the kimchi,” Oh says. “It takes time. But, to be honest, I don’t know how to do it another way. My goal is to make the best product.” 

His kimchi, kimchi paste and kimchi kit have been praised by Food & Wine magazine and Williams Sonoma. Oh spent decades prior to Mama O’s building a name for himself in the entertainment industry as a DJ. It’s only been in the last few months that he stopped working regular DJ gigs “and that’s only because I’ve had to dedicate so much more energy into making the kimchi.” Oh still incorporates music into his work, creating novel stop-motion recipe videos incorporating Mama O’s kimchi. He also hosts Kimchipalooza, an annual festival in Brooklyn with live music and kimchi-centric tastings, demos and DIY workshops. 

“I never had a 40 hour week job in my life. All I’ve done is hustle for gigs. I’m a hustler,” Oh says, adding: “I don’t mind it.”

Oh bounced from locations while growing his brand. From his apartment kitchen to a commercial kitchen space to a basement kitchen in a friend’s restaurant to a kitchen of a deli in Queens and, finally, to his current space in the Pfizer Building in Brooklyn.

“I’m not trying to grow this company and then sell it. That’s not my motivation. I’m blessed to be able to do something I enjoy, that’s positive, that’s good for people, that helps people. Ultimately, that’s what I’m doing: helping people.” 

Below, a Q&A with the dynamic founder.

The Fermentation Association: Why did you start making kimchi?Kheedim Oh: I never set out to start a kimchi company. I needed kimchi for myself and all the kimchi in the stores were not to my liking. I asked my mom to teach me how to make it. I live in New York, my parents live in Maryland. It’s just too far to go bum a jar to kimchi so i asked my mom to teach me how to make it. I would take the Chinatown bus down to Maryland to make it. I would make a batch, but when you make a batch of kimchi at home, you typically do a 50-pound box of vegetables at a time. I would make it, bring it back in a cooler, then I’d wheel it back to my house on a skateboard because I couldn’t afford a taxi.

TFA: When did you move from making it as a hobby to selling it?
Oh: So I was making the kimchi and, at the time, I lived by myself. Fifty pounds is just way too much for your personal stash. I would give it away to my friends and they were like “This is so good, you should sell it.” I didn’t put much too much stake into that. But I was buying ribs from my butcher (Jeffrey’s Meat Market) and he was like “If you have kimchi and rice, you eat like a king.” So I gave him a batch, checked up on him a week later, and he said “I love it!” I said “You know I sell this shit?” and he said “I want to start carrying it.” At that point I had to come up with a name, incorporate, get insurance, all that stuff. I was making it out of the kitchen in my apartment, bringing it to him, he was only a couple blocks away. He was a total angel. He didn’t want any money, he just wanted to give me the opportunity to promote my business.

TFA: Tell me about the brand name, Mama O.
Oh: It was an homage to my mom because she taught me how to make it and what’s better than moms? You eat with your eyes before you eat with your mouth. So we call it Mama O’s Premium Kimchi, not Mama O’s Cutrate Kimchi. We strive to make the best tasting, highest rated, best kimchi. That went into it with our branding, how we wanted to portray ourselves. We may not be the biggest kimchi brand, but we’re definitely making the best. 

TFA: Kimchi has traditionally been a recipe passed down through generations of Koreans. Today, that’s not happening as much. Do you think handcrafted kimchi is a dying food craft?
Oh: Yeah. It’s really sad. That was part of the reasoning why I wanted to learn to make it, because my mom makes really good kimchi. All of the stuff in the stores was just terrible. It was a link to my heritage that I really didn’t want to lose. I wanted to know how to make it just so I could have it. I invented Mama O’s Premium Kimchi Paste, which is the first paste for making kimchi at home. It’s my mom’s recipe. What’s great about the paste is it takes all the guesswork and grunt work out of it. What normally takes 3 hours takes 10 minutes because all the measuring and chopping is done.

TFA: You also created a homemade kimchi kit. Why sell a DIY kit?
Oh: It sells well around the holidays, especially. It’s a 7-inch cube, it’s a perfect gift size and it’s super cute. It’s the first kit of its kind. That kit took me two years to develop. I had to create the paste, then create the kit for it. 

What’s great about the kit is it works every time — it takes the guesswork out of making kimchi. I have so many people tell me they tried to make kimchi on their own and it didn’t work. Kimchi tastes totally different when you’re making it to when it’s done fermenting it and eating it. With lactic acid fermentation, it’s transforming the food on the molecular level. So people, when they’re making it, they try to mess with the flavor to make it taste how they want, but the flavor changes through fermentation.

I’m trying to educate consumers and retailers on how they can use this paste with their vegetables. Retailers can take any vegetable past their prime and make kimchi with it, add value to things they potentially have to throw away. It’s the art of how to transform your vegetables. It’s a great way to maintain food sovereignty. You’re in control of what you make and what you put in your body.

TFA: How have Americans’ perception of kimchi changed from when you started to now?
Oh: It’s interesting because, definitely, there’s a greater awareness of it. It’s kind of confusing on two ends because people don’t know what good kimchi is. There are a lot of chefs that put kimchi on their menus, but it’s not really kimchi. It’s quick kimchi, they acidify it with vinegar.

I’m curious how exactly it will end up in the American diet because kimchi is part of the American food zeitgeist. Kombucha is fully incorporated — it’s an American thing now. But kimchi, I don’t know. I’m curious how people are going to want to eat their kimchi. I think it will possibly be in the form of salad or salad accompaniment. I think a lot of people like kimchi with their eggs in the morning. My favorite way, personally, is on a hot dog, with Western food. I fulfilled a lifelong dream – -one of my neighbors in Brooklyn is Joe’s Pizza. He made a kimchi pizza. I like it better than pepperoni. Kimchi and cheese is like Starsky and Hutch, it’s a great combination.

TFA: Where do you see the future of the industry for fermented products?
Oh: I see more of it, especially after whenever this outbreak settles. Though I got to say, what’s been interesting, the media and journalists have not been touting naturally fermented foods which they should be. I get the resistance to promoting probiotic supplements, I don’t think they’re good either. But I don’t get why no one is promoting fermented foods naturally to people because this has been saving people’s health since the beginning of time.

I see the fermented space growing. I’m curious to see if the supplement industry is going to blow up. I’m not a proponent of the probiotic supplement industry.

TFA: What’s your advice for other startups wanting to start a fermentation brand?
Oh: (Laughs) Besides don’t. Food is tough. Especially now because I think it’s going to get even harder. Really, I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone. But coming out of this, so many people are going to want to start a food brand. You’ll have people coming in that have funding. 

That said, you have to love food to do it. But only do it if you love it. But if you don’t love it and you just want to make a killing at it, that’s not going to work. As they say, it takes 10 years to be an overnight success in the food business.

TFA: What are the future plans for Mama O’s Premium Kimchi?
Oh: Right now, I want to start more partnerships with restaurants when they open again. A lot of restaurants don’t have the time to make it, but I don’t want them making quick kimchi and passing it off as real kimchi.  

We are launching our first hot sauce — Kimchilli — in May with Whole Foods. I’m super excited to launch the hot sauce. 

I’m super lucky — I wish people would acknowledge luck in their success. I was fortunate with my timing, the new science with the mind-gut connection was starting to come out. I’m really trying to make things that people need. And do a lot of education. 

Ultimately my goal is to change how Americans eat and encourage them to eat more like Korean people. I totally get the appeal of a Western diet. I love a good steak. But you can’t just eat a steak. You have to have sides and all of that with it. Just a steak is obscene. I’m really trying to encourage people to eat in a way where meat isn’t the main thing, it’s just an accompaniment. Eat more traditionally fermented foods. One interesting thing with fermented foods is it’s not all the same probiotics. Kombucha affects me differently than when I eat kimchi. Even yogurt, I feel it does the least for me. But it’s based on your personal chemistry as well. It all depends on what works for you, then incorporating things in your diet. There’s a lot of education that needs to happen.

The fermented ingredients market is expected to increase to $39 billion in the U.S. by 2025, growing at a CAGR of 8.5%. Consumers’ gastrointestinal issues and growing sales of alcoholic beverages are driving this growth. (Million Insights)

Open crumb and flavor depth are hallmarks of a fermented, artisan bread. But as artisan bakers scale up production, “fermentation has been the ultimate challenge,” according to Baking Business. “It is critical to a craft bread’s profile, and bakers are often unwilling to compromise on this step.” Making extra dough can decrease the fermentation process if not handled properly. Baking Business, the baking industry e-zine, explores how artisan bread bakers are using automated fermentation to transport mixing bowls, proof and oven load, without losing the artisan style.

Read more (Baking Business)

Amazake — an ancient, fermented superdrink from Japan — is jumping in sales in Japan. Boyband Kanjani Eight was even hired as spokespeople for Hiyashi Amazake, a popular Japanese brand. Amazake was developed around 250 to 538 AD. It’s made by boiling rice, water and koji for 8-10 hours. It’s a sweet drink with a lumpy texture, and its name translates to “sweet sake” (thought it only has trace amounts of alcohol thanks to the fermentation process.) Amazake has earned the nickname “drinkable IV” because it’s packed with nutrients and gut-friendly bacteria. In Japan it’s considered a drink and a health product.

Read more (BBC)

While trying to keep up with increased demand during the pandemic, fermented food brands can’t lose sight of their core values and business strategy.

The COVID-19 outbreak has altered retail sales, with fast-paced, constantly changing sales and production cycles. Customers are going out of their way to find natural and fermented products, believing healthy food will be one of their best defenses against the global virus. But there is also pressure on pricing, with soaring unemployment and large segments of the economy shut down.

Dan Lohman, author of Brand Secrets and Strategies, says brands that sacrifice quality in order to compete on price will suffer. 

“We as a natural (industry), we need to do everything we can to help leverage this storm,” he says “The mainstream retailer’s Achilles Heel is price – and you’ll struggle to compete if you just think about price. … Don’t apologize for quality. Always, always focus on the quality of the product.”

Lohman, an organic and CPG industry strategic adviser, shared business advice in a webinar sponsored by Whole Foods on “How Do You Future Proof Your Store in Uncertain Times.” Here are four of his strategies to help brands survive the pandemic.

1. Focus on Quality

As consumers experience wage loss and unemployment, brands will be tempted to drop their prices and offer a cheaper product. Lohman calls this a tired strategy.

“When you’re thinking about gluten-free, plant-based, some of these other things that we champion that start in our industry, these are the things that are driving sustainable sales across every single channel,” he says. “We should never have to apologize for good quality. Understand it’s our products, our industry, that’s responsible for growth across every category.”

Nielsen Data shows total U.S. food sales are up 1.9%, but natural and organic sales are up 11%.

The modern consumer frames their shopping list by the adage “You are what you eat.” They know eating a healthy, nutritionally dense food will keep them full for longer than a cheap, generic product.

“If I buy the cheap generic bread, I’m hungry almost before I finish eating it. If I eat the best mainstream bread, I may be satiated for a few hours. But if I eat the organic bread and that organic bread provides me the nutrition I need, that might satiate me longer. Even though I’m paying more (for the organic bread), I’m paying less overall. That’s the argument this industry needs to make,” he says. “Unfortunately, this is where we need to rethink how we need to go to market. Its not about price, its about value.”

“Focus on that, focus on how you are delivering that real value to your customer.”

2. Know Your Shopper

The natural shopper stereotype is someone who eats a salad and takes a walk. Defining the shopper in a small scope is limiting. Today’s natural shoppers are diverse and united in a common purpose: craving healthy food.

“Creativity is our single greatest asset. This is how we stand out on a crowded shelf. This is all about having a purpose. Natural is really good at that because were all purpose driven,” Lohman says.

3. Maintain a Score Card

Critical during the pandemic is continuing to track sales measurements. Brands need to tell retailers average turns, anticipated sales, ideal backstock, customer insight and category trends.

“A lot of brands today are reactive. They need to be proactive. It’s your name on the package,” Lohman says. “When a customer sees your product out of stock, they’ll blame the brand, not the retailer.”

Eighty percent of natural food brands fail in the first year of operation. Measurements are key to surviving, Lohman says. They show the retailer “the contribution a brand brings to the store.” Your band may not be the top-selling brand in the category, but it may be bringing the most dollars to the category.

4. Market Intentionally

As grocery store shelves quickly deplete of essential goods and medical supplies, natural brands can market their product as a health alternative.

Shoppers are struggling to find cold medicine. How does your product help alleviate cold symptoms? Grocery stores are selling out of flour. Is your product a healthy alternative to a carbohydrate?

“Help customers understand you’re there to solve their unique problems,” Lohman says.

Fermented drinks are experiencing soaring sales during the coronavirus crisis. Sales are up for kombucha (10.1%), wine (27.6%), spirits (26.45%) and beer/cider (14%). (Nielsen Data)

In a matter of days, the novel coronavirus outbreak dramatically changed grocery shopping. Empty grocery store shelves have become a ubiquitous symbol globally of home quarantine.

Sales exploded for pantry staples like dried beans (62.9%), powdered milk (126.3%) and rice (57.5%). But another grocery quarantine must-have item is emerging – fermented food and drink. Sales are up for kombucha (10.1%), natto is selling out in Japan, yogurt is selling out in Europe and pickle and sauerkraut sales in Russia are up 79%. Fermentation brands are reporting some of their biggest sales during the month of March, as much of the nation was forced into self-isolation to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“For fermented food, it’s an interesting time. We’re an immune boosting type of food, so our sales are skyrocketing. We’ve had the best month we’ve ever had in business,” says Drew Anderson, CEO of Cleveland Kitchen and TFA board member. Cleveland Kitchen makes sauerkraut and fermented dressings and marinades. “It is bittersweet. Obviously, we want this virus to go away. But we’re seeing the fermentation industry as a whole, the one benefit is it’s driving a lot of trial. People say ‘I heard fermented food is supposed to be good for you, I’m cooking more, why not grab a pack of kraut.’”

Though sales are high, brands are changing their operation model. Rather than running two shifts of processing at Cleveland Kitchen, they’re down to one. Employees must take daily temperature readings before work, stop for mandatory handwashing breaks and use new Purell hand sanitizing stations.

“Sales are up overall, but we have had to implement our emergency sanitation protocols to continue production,” says Meg Chamberlain, CEO of Fermenti, LLC. The North Carolina-based brand sells a variety of vegetable ferments, teaches fermenting workshops and hosts annual the annual WNC Fermenting Festival. Their staff is under voluntary home quarantine – which means staff only goes from work to home. “Overall our company is proving resilient and we are hopeful to continue to provide Fermenti to our community.”

Because food production is considered essential business, licensed fermentation companies have not been forced to stop working during the coronavirus outbreak.

Aneta Lundquist, CEO of 221 B.C. Kombucha, has been posting videos to her Instagram stories of the Florida based kombucha processing facility. Lundquist says employees are working overtime to deliver orders.

“Our orders during the global pandemic have spiked. Consumers have gone full blown ‘healthy’ food during this health crisis,” she says. “Now is the time to make a switch from over-processed and denaturalized pseudo foods to real, natural and unprocessed foods that nourish our body, mind and spirit and help building a strong immunity.”

Lundquist adds customers need to “think of kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut and other fermented fruits and vegetables as microbiome rock stars!…Always choose wildly fermented foods.”

“Remember it is about diversity and the quality of microorganisms, not just quantity. You can only achieve this by fermenting traditionally.”

Keenan Smith, CEO of Goodwolf Kefir in Portland, agrees. He says: “The probiotic and fermented space will increase as people have an increase in health awareness and want a better functioning immune system.” They are home delivering their kefir, and donating a

Brands are getting creative with their marketing, too. Goodwolf Kefir is home delivering kefir to the Portland area and donating a proceed of sales to their local food bank. Cultured South and Golda Kombucha have setup a pick-up fridge at their Atlanta location where customers can prepay for an order online, get a secret code to unlock the fridge and grab fermented food and drinks. Wild Kombucha in Baltimore is offering free, local, “no human touch” home delivery for their 12 pack bottles. 28 Mile Vodka & Distillery in Illinois have converted their distillery to make hand sanitizer that they call “Fool’s Gin.” The CEOs of Miyoko’s Creamery and Lifeway Kefir are both using the brands Instagram accounts to share recipes using their product.

Outside the U.S., though, different government rules are restricting fermentation brands from operating during the global outbreak. In India, Mountain Bee Kombucha has halted operations during a 21-day lockdown.

“There is no question that our business is impacted immensely, one for the fact that we are still quite small-scale which supplies directly to a handful of local grocery stores. Currently those grocery stores have been working at limited capacity and/or temporarily shut,” said founder and head brewer Honey Islam. “Another reason for lesser business in these times is due to the lack of awareness in the Indian market about fermented foods, especially kombucha. We are engaged in educating our customers as well as spreading awareness in the community via workshops, classes, 101 sessions, pop-ups, all these channels are education are currently disrupted which stalled our efforts in bringing kombucha awareness to the masses.”

Mountain Bee Kombucha is focusing on educating through Instagram videos and YouTube tutorials.