Nestle, Tyson, food giants are betting on deep fryers

  • Nestle, Kellogg, Tyson Foods and Gorton’s Seafood are among the food companies that are leaning into the air fryer boom to appeal to consumers.
  • As inflation eases and retailers put pressure on suppliers to stop raising prices, food companies have had to look elsewhere for growth.
  • Nearly 60% of American households own a deep fryer, according to Nestle’s Adam Graves.
An Air Fryer for sale at Kroger Marketplace in Versailles, Kentucky, USA, Tuesday, November 24, 2020.

Scotty Perry | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Kettle Foods, known for its kettle-cooked potato chips, recently unveiled what it called “the future of the potato chip category”: air-fried chips.

The Campbell Soup brand’s snack launch, made with patent-pending technology, is the latest example of Big Food betting on consumers’ love of all things airfryered.

By 2022, US consumers will spend nearly $1 billion on air fryers, up 51% from 2019, according to market research firm The NPD Group. Sales of the cooker have been soaring since 2017, and they got an extra boost in the early days of the pandemic as people cooked more at home.

And now that more employees are returning to the office and spending less time in the kitchen, consumers are increasingly turning to portable convection ovens. Joe Derochowski, home industry adviser at NPD Group, said the main draw is the ease and speed of using the appliance, plus achieving a crispy texture without deep frying. And food manufacturers want to take advantage of the trend.

“They say necessity is the mother of invention. And in this case, the necessity is to continue to grow the top line,” said Ken Harris, managing partner at Cadent Consulting Group. “The best way to grow the top line is to take behavior that already exists and find a new use for that behavior.”

Major food companies such as Kraft Heinz and Nestle saw an increase in sales early in the pandemic. As consumers began dining out again and cooking less, food manufacturers’ sales still continued to grow thanks to double-digit price increases. But as customers’ grocery bills rose in 2022, they started buying cheaper options instead, leading to declining volumes.

As inflation eases and retailers put pressure on suppliers to stop raising prices, food companies have had to look elsewhere for growth.

Adam Graves, president of Nestle USA’s pizza and snack division, said the company is leaning into the air fryer boom through its frozen foods specifically to offer customers more value.

“It’s the biggest trend we’re seeing right now in modern cooking,” said Graves, who himself owns two air fryers.

Last year, Nestle launched pizza bites under its DiGiorno and Stouffers brands. Both lines’ packaging tells consumers to “Try it in your Air Fryer.” Other Nestle products, such as Hot Pockets, now include airfryer cooking instructions along with instructions for reheating in the microwave and oven.

Tyson Foods jumped on the trend relatively early, launching its air-fried line in 2019. The products, which range from chicken strips to its newest addition, Parmesan Seasoned Chicken Bites, contain 75% less fat. Colleen Hall, senior director of marketing for the Tyson brand, said the line has reached about $100 million in annual retail sales.

Tyson is also one-third of the way through adding air fryer instructions to its frozen prepared food packaging.

“If you look at how often it’s used as a preparation method, it’s about 5%,” Hall said. “I think consumers will use it more, they will have more options to use it. So it’s good timing for us to put it on our packaging.”

The Airfryer guidelines increase Tyson’s brand favorability, according to Hall, who cited recent brand health data. She chalked it up to the convenience of the appliance and the perceived health benefits of the cooking process.

For fish stick maker Gorton’s Seafood, getting more into air frying is a means of keeping the customers it gained during pandemic shutdowns.

“(The pandemic) was a pretty dramatic shift that brought a lot of new households into our category and into the brand,” Jake Holbrook, Gorton’s vice president of marketing, told CNBC. “And we’ve worked hard through our messaging and our products to keep those consumers in the category and keep Americans eating more seafood.”

Air frying is the second most popular way to reheat frozen prepared foods, according to Holbrook.

The company, which is owned by Nissui, got in on the trend by posting airfryer cooking instructions on its website. Then it added the instructions to the packaging. In January, it unveiled Air Fried Butterfly Shrimp and Air Fried Fish Fillets.

Gortons launched air-fried fish fillets and air-fried butterfly prawns nationwide in January.

Source: Gorton’s Seafood

Gorton’s new butterfly prawns and fish fillets were cooked by air-frying before being packaged, but consumers can reheat the seafood by air-frying it. The products packaging says it contains 50% less fat.

“Everybody’s going to jump on this bandwagon for the next two years while it’s trendy,” Harris said.

Other food manufacturers following the trend include Kellogg, which began including air-frying instructions for its plant-based Morningstar Farms products in early 2021 in response to customer requests. Similarly, Hormel Foods has responded to consumer demand for fryers by updating its packaging and adding recipes to its website and cooking videos on YouTube to create Spam fries and Mary Kitchen corned beef hash.

Nestlé has gone even further and targeted consumers who have not yet purchased a deep fryer. In December, it teamed up with Insta Brands, the maker of the Insta Pot and its own version of the air fryer, to give away the appliance. It ran a similar giveaway internally at Nestle US for its employees.

Graves estimates that about 60% of American households have a deep fryer at this point. But it’s not ubiquitous yet.

“If you benchmark it to a microwave — there’s a microwave in virtually everyone’s home — the deep fryer has a long way to go,” Harris said.

Still, it is well on its way to becoming part of the microwave as a staple in American kitchens. By 2022, the fryer leapfrogged grills and multicookers to become the No. 4 cooking appliance, according to the NPD Group.

“I think people originally thought (the air fryer) was something that could be a fad,” Tyson’s Hall said. “It’s like the 1970s – people thought the same thing about the microwave.”

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