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Beer, barbecue and burgers are as much a part of Fourth of July celebrations as fireworks and the Stars and Stripes. Today, however, meatless sausages, gluten-free pita chips and canned wine are also on the menu — the latest sign that shifting consumer behaviour is upending the global food and drinks business.
Reasons for the changing Independence Day tastes are varied, and go beyond dietary considerations. The rise of social media has made image-conscious young people more reluctant to get loaded on lager, while concerns about agriculture’s impact on the environment are helping fuel demand for alternatives to meat.
David Lee, chief financial officer of Bill Gates-backed Impossible Foods, known for its plant-based burger that “bleeds”, said: “The all-American hamburger is still iconic, but finally there is an entirely plant-based Impossible Burger that can satisfy that craving.”
While industry sales figures for this week have yet to be compiled, data from consultancy Nielsen for the same period in 2018 highlight the shifts, and executives are expecting more of the same this year.
While beer sales dipped 1.6 per cent from 2017 levels, canned wine sales leapt 57 per cent, and so-called hard seltzers — sparkling water infused with alcohol — jumped 150 per cent. In food, sales of fresh beef ticked up 2.1 per cent, while plant-based meat alternatives rose 11 per cent.
Chart showing familiar fare fades on the Fourth as Americans swallow alternatives
Not everyone is convinced that the familiar favourites are on their way out. “Hot dogs are Americana — in my opinion, that never has changed and never will change,” said Wayne Rosenbaum, who runs Manhattan hot dog joint Papaya King.
Papaya King is staying open later than usual to mark the occasion, until 1am. Its hot dog sales on Independence Day in previous years have been about a tenth higher than usual.
“We haven’t noticed anything but upticks” on the day, added Hugh Mangum, co-founder of the New York-based barbecue chain Mighty Quinn’s. “BBQ is truly our national cuisine.”
Traditional Fourth of July fare still outsells the alternatives by a considerable margin. Americans bought $874m worth of beef, hot dogs and sausages during the week of Independence Day last year, according to Nielsen, compared to $325m for plant-based alternatives. Beer sales totalled almost $800m in the period, dwarfing the less than $3m for canned wine and about $16m for hard seltzers.
Still, the rising popularity of alternative products throughout the year is disrupting traditional food and drink companies, which have released a series of disappointing financial results. The latest came last week from ConAgra. The company behind Slim Jim beef snacks missed profit forecasts, sending its shares down 12 per cent on the day.
Wider shifts in consumer sentiment away from big brands have given smaller upstarts an edge, argued Jan Livingston Mokhtari, co-founder of start-up Gray Whale Gin. She pointed to Budweiser, long marketed as quintessentially American.
“Young people’s definition of what it means to be all-American is changing. They’re savvy enough to know that Budweiser is a huge corporate machine,” she said. Now consumers wanted to celebrate local goods, produced by “authentic founders”.
More Americans are also avoiding booze altogether. Sparkling water sales jumped 19 per cent during the Fourth of July week last year. Yumi Clevenger-Lee, chief marketing officer at Perrier-maker Nestlé Waters, said teetotallers were enduring less social stigma than in days gone by. “I don’t think there are eyebrows being raised any more,” she said.
Those who are sticking to the booze on the day have a wider choice than ever. In vodka, for instance, Diageo is marketing a “Red, White and Berry” version of Smirnoff — cherry, citrus and blue raspberry — while Pernod Ricard is pushing a limited edition bottle, Absolut America.
Devon Broglie, a senior drinks buyer at Whole Foods, the upscale retailer, said so-called flavoured malt beverages, including brands Truly and White Claw, had been selling particularly well this year. “More than lower alcohol, it is also about clear, refreshing, flavour,” he said.
Makers of traditional food and drink say they are not sitting still in dealing with the challenges. Sean Connolly, ConAgra’s chief executive, told analysts last week that it was poised to capitalise on plant and soy-based meat alternatives after it acquired Pinnacle Foods, behind meatless brand, Gardein, last year.
Anheuser-Busch, brewer of Budweiser, has set its sights on new products such as ready-to-drink canned cocktails and recently set a target to increase non-beer revenues in the US to $1bn. “People are expanding their beverage repertoire,” said Chelsea Phillips, a vice-president for the company’s “Beyond Beer” brands.
The trend may not appeal to traditionalists, yet for some the increasing choice of Independence Day fare captures the spirit of the occasion.
“Fourth of July is a moment to celebrate freedom and togetherness,” said Ms Clevenger-Lee. “Freedom to choose what is best for yo