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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Teaneck’s Eitan Bernath at the Jewish Food Social Media Conference. (Credit: Bracha Schwartz)

Restaurateurs talk about newest trends in kosher cuisine at Kosherfest. (l-r) Elan Kornblum, moderator; Jeff Nathan, executive chef and co-owner, Abigail’s Restaurant; Mike Gershkovich, chef, Mike’s Bistro Restaurant; Bryan Gryka, Milt’s BBQ in Chicago. (Credit: Diversified Media)

Menachem Lubinsky addresses audience at Kosherfest. (Credit: Bracha Schwartz)

Yarden Horwitz speaking about analyzing data to predict food trends. (Credit: Diversified Media)

Kosherfest keynote speaker Yarden Horwitz’s slide shows the kosher food category growing over 13 percent from 2015 to 2018. (Credit: Yarden Horwitz)

Q&A at the Jewish Food Media Conference. (l-r) Naomi Nachman at podium, Eitan Bernath, Danielle Renov, Chanie Apfelbaum, Melinda Strauss. (Credit: Bracha Schwartz)

Big brother is not watching us, yet, but the people who produce, market and sell food for the kosher consumer are closely following our cyber footsteps. At Kosherfest, the kosher food industry trade show held in mid-November, numerous speakers talked about how the internet has changed consumer behavior and how the kosher marketplace has responded.

Menachem Lubinksy, president and CEO of Lubicom Marketing and founder of Kosherfest, noted that the internet has caused a “dramatic shift” in the way people interact with food at every level. “We don’t have to wait for conversations to take place about what people eat and where they dine,” he said. “It’s instant today—before even lifting a fork and knife, people are taking pictures of the presentation, posting how they feel about food. This puts the onus on retailers and restaurateurs to make decisions on which products will be winners or losers.”

Keynote speaker Yarden Horwitz, formerly director of Trendspotting for Google, talked about the process she created to identify, predict and understand the next big trends—and see which ones are declining—by analyzing anonymous data from searches using keywords, and looking for patterns in the data. She recently launched her own firm, Spate, to enlarge that capability by “advancing our data sets and machine learning capabilities to turn data points into cultural signals with meaningful implications for our clients.”

Market research used to be based on observing customers of local stores and cafes, and conducting focus groups, but Horwitz said that approach is too narrow nowadays. Online signals like searches, purchases, Instagram posts and comments show the big picture of what consumers want. When quantified, this information can be turned into trend lines, guiding manufacturers in developing new products and fine-tuned messaging for items already in the production cycle. When data showed that the spice turmeric was a hot item, Horwitz advised a manufacturer to put “includes turmeric” on the label of a product with the spice.

For her presentation at Kosherfest, Horwitz analyzed data from searches using the word kosher. She found that the kosher market grew by 13.5 percent between 2015 and 2018, a very strong showing. She saw seasonal trends such as a spike in kosher searches in April coinciding with Passover. Interestingly, searches for kosher turkey around Thanksgiving have showed a year-to-year decline.

Horwitz said that the fastest-growing trend is food for the keto diet—high protein, low carb. Horwitz predicts that the keto snacks category will grow 98 percent in the next 12 months. Food bowls like Acai, Poke, and Playa (fruit) are growing in popularity. Horowitz surmises that pretty Instagram photos and portability are behind this trend. CBD oil (cannabis)-infused foods, often searched for in conjunction with anxiety relief, are also gaining popularity, even for pets. And matcha tea from Indonesia and the Philippines is trending upwards. Horwitz said manufacturers of kosher food can look at these trends to make decisions about producing kosher versions of popular products. Indeed, samples of CBD oil-infused chocolate and matcha tea powder were available at Kosherfest.

In a panel discussion about kosher food trends, three restaurateurs talked about how social media affects their business. “Social media has changed the game in the dining room,” said Jeff Nathan, owner of Abigail’s Restaurant in New York City. He is astonished that customers sit down in his high end restaurant and then interact mainly with their phones. “The best part of the meal is not just the food but the people around the table,” he said. The beautiful photos people share can attract others but posts about a bad experience can give a restaurateur heartburn. “We want to fix the situation and have them come back,” Nathan said, but the instantaneous nature of a negative post means damage spreads before it can be repaired.

Like manufacturers, restaurant owners must keep abreast of food trends to please their customers. “Healthy food, low sodium and low sugar are trends here to stay,” said Nathan, “but people still want the 22-ounce Brazilian rib steak with fries, though maybe not as often.” He sees lunchtime customers gravitating to salads, fish and poke bowls.

Influencers such as food bloggers have developed a mutually advantageous relationship with manufacturers. As the bloggers’ following grows, with ever more stunning photographs and videos, brands take notice. They send products to bloggers, often paying substantially, to be included in their posts.

Six years ago, Melinda Strauss, author of the blog Kitchen Tested, started the Jewish Food Media Conference the day before Kosherfest, so kosher food bloggers who were coming to the show could network and share ideas. At this year’s conference, the speakers talked about how they turned themselves into brands, building a consistent look on their blogs, so a food manufacturer can easily visualize its product in the blogger’s posts. Unlike paid media, where advertisers buy space and craft their message, bloggers only include products they want to write about. Their credibility would be hurt if they promoted a product that didn’t pass muster with their followers. That authenticity is what attracts manufacturers.

Eitan Bernath, a 16-year-old Frisch student from Teaneck, has become a food-blogging star, with his own video production company to turn out content for his YouTube channel. He said his work pays for itself and is not funded at all by his parents. “Your blog is your real estate,” he said at the conference, and like valuable real estate, it should have a price tag for brands who want to be on that space.

As a reality check, I reached out to Kayco, a leading producer and distributor of kosher food, to ask about the company’s social media and internet research strategy. Kim Cassar, vice president of marketing, said she works with hundreds of bloggers who have a dedicated consumer following, sending them products to try and write about. “We have a great relationship with the blogger community,” she said. “Bloggers are a consumer gateway. They won’t talk about something they don’t believe in. They are passionate about the product and give usage recommendations. This gives brands credibility.”

She uses “a handful of criteria” to choose bloggers. “We look at what they are saying. Are they accurate? Do they really understand the category, like gluten-free? We are borrowing their megaphone to tell our brand story. The brand voice and blogger voice have to agree.”

Cassar said that Kayco has paid to work with bloggers who are focused on nutrition or lifestyles like gluten-free and vegan. “What we’ve seen is, the larger the blogger’s reach, the more they will require for product endorsement. That being said, bloggers will not promote products that they don’t use and believe in. Many bloggers are so well established that they will provide rate cards, just as you would see from a magazine. They will provide a cost for product posts, inclusion in videos, tweets and Instagram stories. There is now a whole menu of options to choose from.”

Using bloggers as influencers can bring rapid results. Cassar related that she sent a new product, a Tahini bar snack, to the blogger “Hungry Girl,” and the product sold out on Amazon two hours after her post.

Bloggers can also give feedback that leads to improvements in a product. Cassar said she called a blogger who tried one of her products and wrote in a post that it wasn’t one of her favorites. “We had a great conversation and I told her I’ll take her comments back to my team and they will make the product better.” A wealth of information can be gleaned from Amazon as well. “When we start to see trends growing in popularity on different websites, we look into developing products for them.”

Kayco Executive Vice President Harold Weiss wrote in an email that the company pays close attention to what is being said about its products online, particularly in reviews. “You can quickly learn what consumers like about your products and more importantly, what they don’t like. Smart companies constantly watch consumer reviews. Great companies act on them.”

So, the next time you search for a recipe, write a review or read one, keep in mind that your clicks and words are filtering into the vast focus group that is cyberspace. And don’t be surprised when you see a new product in the supermarket that is just what you were looking for.

By Bracha Schwartz