Vice Vs. Nice

When it comes to food, there’s something for every taste at the NACS Show. We sent our writers—one leans healthy and the other indulgent—out to sample the fare. Here’s what they found.

Vice Vs. Nice

December 2019   minute read

It’s been said that the products at the NACS Show’s expo provide a snapshot of the convenience retailing industry. Not only the near-future trends and different perspectives about its direction but also what the industry looks like right now.

The good news is that while convenience stores were once last resorts for impulse and necessity, the products on display at the 2019 NACS Show reflect the industry’s shift toward becoming a one-stop destination to satisfy any need state. From the healthy to the indulgent—and everything in between—this year’s Show was full of cravable, unique products with well-designed and eye-catching packaging.

While Al investigated the fried and frosted options, Frank focused on the rest. Here’s what caught their attention.

South Mill Champs: Shiitake Mushroom Jerky

Shiitake Mushroom Jerky just might be the “single most delicious product” Frank says he sampled at the Show.

Mushrooms are something that people either love or hate. I don’t mind them, but even I will pass when asked if I’d like them on pizza.

Nonetheless, the Shiitake Mushroom Jerky from Shrooms may be the single most delicious product I encountered at the NACS Show. I’m serious. Not only did I enjoy the samples, but I took a bag home to save for later. Of course, I had to break them out when my vegan sister came by for dinner and started asking questions—we emptied it before I started cooking.

The entire Shrooms line from South Mill Champs began when the mushroom producer saw a chance to get on board with the plant-based snacks trend. “Everything we’re selling is mushroom-based, and we’re growing it in Pennsylvania,” said David Eberwein, director of innovation and business development, in a statement to The Packer. “We even grow our own hay for our own compost, do our own processing and packaging, so we’re vertically integrated. Shrooms is our functional, ready-to-eat snacking, making-mushrooms-easier-to-enjoy brand.”

This product stands out for a few reasons. First, it’s a truly unique spin on jerky. Maybe it’s just me, but there are only so many ways that jerky can be made “unique” before it all starts to blend together and look the same. Mushrooms though? That’s a new one. Second, the flavor profile is intensely delicious. My favorite is the honey chipotle version, but roasted teriyaki is a close second.

For those who want the best of both worlds, Shrooms also debuted jerky varieties that are half mushroom and half filet mignon.


Krispy Krunchy Chicken: Everything

Al lined up with other NACS Show-goers to sample freshly fried chicken at the Krispy Krunchy booth. A new seasoning allows fans to recreate the taste at home.

When you spot a big crowd gathered, it’s natural to walk over and see what’s going on. Each year at the NACS Show, Krispy Krunchy Chicken is a crowd pleaser; there’s always something new and delicious happening.

Neal Onebane, founder and president, told me, “We’ve rolled out boneless wings, which has been the most successful new product in the history of the company. It’s doing extremely well. It is a freezer-to-fryer product, so amazing quality.”

If you’re looking to add some kick to the seasoning in your food program, Krispy Krunchy is getting into the retail business. “We have a product called Perfectly Cajun Seasoning and Marinade. It’s the same flavor profile as our chicken, made by the same company in a dry form,” said Onebane. It’s sure to take your food from bland to bang.

I cook and experiment with food. What makes this different from other seasonings is it can be mixed with butter or water and it liquifies, which allows it to be easily injected into the meat. It’s seasoned inside and out—it doesn’t get better than that.

“If you have a turkey, a roast, game, deer or duck you can inject it, and it has the same flavor profile that we produce everyday with our fried chicken,” said Onebane.


Alpha Foods: Plant-Based Convenience

Remember when Honda launched the Insight back in late 1999? The small hybrid featured an awkward cover over the rear wheels, earning constant accusations of being “ugly” or “weird.” Indeed, the ad campaign for the newly relaunched Insight plays up on the car’s new styling after research revealed that ugly design is the top turnoff for hybrid buyers.

I feel like something similar has happened in the world of meat substitutes. Years ago they were just strange, amorphous blobs of matter that were more about function than flavor. Fast forward to today, and some of the products are nearly indistinguishable from the real thing.

No meat on this roller grill! Frank sampled vegan “Alpha Dogs” and vegan "egg" All-Day Burritos from Alpha Foods, a new exhibitor at the 2019 Show.

In the New Exhibitors section of the NACS Show, I sampled the entire line of plant-based options from Alpha Foods. All were fantastic, but two stand out: the Alpha Dogs and the All-Day Burritos. While I’m not sure if they’re the right fit for every store, they solve a real problem: Sometimes it’s really difficult to find vegan options on-the-go. These products provide a quick, easy solution while also tasting delicious enough that people like me might occasionally purchase them.

I may not be a fan of roller dogs, but I’d grab the occasional plant-based Alpha Dog if it were available. And honestly, I would’ve sworn that the breakfast burrito contained real eggs if nobody had told me otherwise.


Vegan Rob’s: Brussel Sprout Puffs

I love a good bag of chips as much as anyone. Indeed, the reason that I had to lose so much weight at one point in my life was in part due to my love for the crispy, salty, disturbingly satisfying feeling that comes from chips.

Frank discovered a new go-to-snack—Vegan Rob's Brussel Sprout Puffs, which he describes as having "the right amount of crunch."

Lately, there have been many attempts to find a compromise. Positioned in the middle between health-focused options and the indulgent are vegetable-themed puffs. They may contain more sorghum than the veggies listed on the front of the bags, but let’s be honest: Few of us are actually expecting dried beets or sprouts. We just want the crunch and mouthfeel of chips, while feeling a little less guilty about our decision.

In this arena, I was quite impressed with the products from Vegan Rob’s. Forget cheesy poofs. They have Jackfruit Puffs, Moringa Puffs, Beet Puffs and more, including my favorite—Brussel Sprout Puffs. Each of these contains the right amount of crunch with a dense, almost satisfying consistency as you follow through with each bite. I’m no food scientist and certainly lack the right vocabulary to describe how they make me feel, but it’s enough to say that I’d purchase a bag at my local convenience store.


Four ’N Twenty: Traveller Classic Beef & Cheese Pastry

Meat pies from Down Under caught Al’s eye. Gravy and meat in a puff pastry—what's not to like?

Four ’N Twenty’s Traveller Classic Beef & Cheese Pastry is known as Australia’s fan food. “At an AFL [Australian Football League] game in Australia, you’ll typically sell about 20,000 of our products,” said Anthony Kwenin, North American sales manager. Essentially, an Australian beef pastry is an American meat pie, but no matter what they’re called, these are incredibly good.

“It’s a hundred percent Aussie beef, with a bit of gravy in a puff pastry,” said Kwenin, adding, “We’ve just become available through US Foods, and we’re about to go live with the Road Runners chain in Pennsylvania.”

These meat pies are incredibly flavorful, with filling seasoned to perfection. They hit the mark with the blend of gravy and meat. The pastry is a traditional puffed pastry with a nice buttery flavor that works well with the filling. I’ve never had a meat pie that wasn’t fried. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a deep-fried guy, but I found myself going crazy for this new meat pie experience.


Kellogg’s: Pringles New Flavors and Rice Krispies Treats Dunk’d

Stack Pringles’ new Rotisserie Chicken chips and Parmesan & Roasted Garlic chips and viola! Chicken Parmesan!

I’m always amazed at the new flavors of potato chips. I was not disappointed with the two new offerings from Pringles: Parmesan & Roasted Garlic and Rotisserie Chicken. “We’re talking about these as being new stack-worthy flavors. If you want to have a little fun and put them together you can actually create a chicken parmesan,” said Ami O’Keefe, senior customer marketing manager for Kellogg’s convenience. In a sea of unusually flavored chips these stand out. I own a rotisserie and cook chicken a couple of times a week, and I really liked the Rotisserie Chicken flavor. Both are fun, bold flavors, and you definitely have to take O’Keefe's advice and put them together and enjoy a chicken parmesan chip experience.

And just when you thought Rice Krispies Treats couldn’t get any better—boom! There’s a new treat on the shelf, but this one is only available in c-stores. “This is everyone’s favorite treat bar, only better because now it’s dipped in chocolate coating, or we have a cookies and cream variety,” O’Keefe explained adding, “It’s a big bar size, so think about it the way you think about a sharing-size candy bar. It delivers on the value that consumers are looking for.”

I’m on board for icing everything. I thought Rice Krispies Treats were great already, but now, they’ve been taken to a whole new level. It’s also pretty cool that these can only be found in convenience stores. One more reason for customers to make that trip from the pump to the door.


Three Farmers: Crunchy Little Lentils

Frank is a fan of lentils, so these Crunchy Little Lentils caught his eye as a fiber-filled snack.

I love lentils. At home, I often boil and season them as a substitute for rice and quinoa when I cook dinner.

However, I never considered roasted lentils as a grab-and-go snack until I encountered the Crunchy Little Lentils product from Three Farmers. Not only are they low in calories, high in fiber and accessible to anyone who can’t eat trail mix or other snacks due to nut and peanut allergies, but these lentils have a delectable mouthfeel. Just the right amount of crunch.

Try the sea salt and vinegar version. Whether you snack in the car or sit the bag on your desk at work, it’s a guilt-free replacement for chips that doesn’t sacrifice flavor.


Tosi: Super Bites

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one of my favorite snack bars at the NACS Show: Tosi’s Super Bites. Speaking as a consumer, I think many of us are tired of products that create a facade of “healthy” through their packaging, only to give us loads of sugar and a lengthy ingredient list. Tosi’s ingredients aren’t just simple, they’re transparent in the way that you can actually see them through the clear packaging. Nuts, chia seeds, flax seeds and more—it’s all right there. Other than KIND, they’re one of the few brands that seem eager to take this approach.

Tosi Super Bites bars sated Frank's appetite before his recent wedding.

With around 150 calories in each bar, it’s also a product that won’t leave you with regrets. The relatively high fat and protein content from almonds and cashews also keeps me feeling full.

I took a handful of samples home after the Show. When I got married a few weeks later and realized that I hadn’t eaten all day as I was about to leave for the ceremony, I grabbed two bars to hold me over until the reception. They were delicious and got the job done.


The Great Spirits Baking Company: Cakes

I like cake, and if you combine cake with fine liquor, you have a something that is decadent beyond belief. “The Great Spirits Baking Company lines up with the most premium global spirits brands and other non-alcohol partners to create delicious dessert and snack items,” said Mike Valenti, CEO.

The Guinness Chocolate Stout Slice has a “wonderfully bold chocolate flavor,” Al says.

The company is launching individually wrapped cake slices targeting c-stores, grab-and-go and packaged liquor channels. The products all have less than a half percent of alcohol by volume, which means they are not regulated. Valenti said, “We use premium ingredients; we have very strict guidelines about how we manufacture our products and how we go to retail.”

Customers can choose from Guinness Chocolate Stout Slice, Pallini Limoncello Slice, Captain Morgan Spiced Apple Slice and Bailey’s Irish Cream Slice.

Each attendee I talked to had their own favorite. The Guinness Chocolate Stout Slice surprised some Show-goers. “We’ve had all kinds of people come by and say ‘I don’t really like beer,’ but then they try it and say, ‘That’s really good,’” Valenti said. I thought the Pallini Limoncello was a nice light flavor, but I’m a huge fan of the Guinness Chocolate Stout Slice with its wonderfully bold chocolate flavor. The bottom line is I could not say which one I love best. You have to eat them all—over and over again.


MY/MO Mochi Ice Cream: Various Flavors

Al couldn’t get enough of the Ripe Strawberry flavor of MY/MO Mochi Ice Cream.

If you’re in the c-store industry you have to love a product that is convenient to eat. MY/MO Mochi Ice Cream is a cold treat you eat with your fingers. How easy is that? “MY/MO Mochi Ice Cream is sweet rice dough wrapped around premium ice cream. It’s hand-held, portion controlled, four bites, 110 calories; it’s the perfect snack,” said Russell Barnett, chief marketing officer.

When Japanese mochi dough is wrapped around ice cream it’s absolutely delicious. The brand launched in 2017 and is available in 18,000 stores. “There’s been an absolute evolution in the frozen novelty space because the space has been waiting for a snack-able item. We lovingly say the stick is dead,” Barnett said.

MY/MO Mochi debuted the two-pack at this year’s NACS Show, and the product will move into convenience stores over the next few months.

I found myself cruising by the MY/MO booth again and again. There are six different flavors, but I couldn’t get enough of the Ripe Strawberry.


The No-Bake Cookie Co.: Various Flavors

Many people had their first no-bake cookie in a school cafeteria. These are simple cookies with chocolate, peanut butter, sugar and oatmeal that are cooked in a pot rather than an oven. I’ve always loved these. I made them when my kids were growing up. Now, you can walk into a c-store and simply buy them thanks to The No-Bake Cookie Co.

Designed for the c-store market, these No-Bake cookies are just the right size to grab and go.

No surprise here, the company was started by a mom. “My mom came up with these no-bake cookie recipes,” said Eric Healy, son of company founder, Carol Healy. “It’s a traditional, nostalgic type of product. She started making them for our family-owned convenience store in Bend, Oregon, and the product just took off. People were coming every day, and it just became a craze. She looked out on the market and decided it would be a good product to start selling across the country. Here we are, and we’ve been growing fast across the convenience store network.”

I make great no-bake cookies, but these are every bit as good—if not better—than the ones I make. What I like about these is there are just enough in the bag.