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Why we’re in a golden age of novelty food items and bizarre flavors

And they aren’t going anywhere, thanks to the shrinking middle class.

Sainsbury’s Pigs in a blanket tea and Brussels sprouts tea.
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

The phrase “pigs in a blanket-flavored tea” tends to do two things to you: First, they trigger your brain’s disgust mechanism, immediately filling your nose and mouth with a putrid odor akin to stale hot dog water.

Second: If you grew up in a household in which tiny sausages wrapped in puff pastry were served during the month of December, it will conjure nostalgic images of childhood holiday parties. This is because, unfortunately, you are kind of a rube who has been duped by marketers.

Pigs in a blanket-flavored tea is indeed real, thanks to the UK grocery store chain Sainsbury’s. In October the chain released two eccentric holiday-themed teas, the other being the equally unappetizing Brussels sprouts flavor. In a press release, Sainbury’s advertised the teas as an “unusual gift,” and “never intended to replace your morning English Breakfast.” It even came with a punny portmanteau: “novelteas.”

And that, of course, is precisely what pigs in a blanket tea is: a bizarro concoction that exists more to be looked at and talked about than actually consumed. It’s part of a years-long trend of novelty food items that, according to one expert, started around 2012 with a single item: Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos taco.

These small-seeming one-off items have to potential to be incredibly lucrative: Taco Bell, for instance, sold over a billion Doritos Locos tacos in its first year and had to hire 15,000 extra workers just to keep up with demand. It's been called one of the most successful product launches in fast-food history, and since then, food companies have raced to replicate the frenzy.

And because it’s the holidays, when certain flavors hold special nostalgic weight for consumers (and when those consumers are feeling particularly spendy), that means novelty items and wacky flavor mash-ups are even more omnipresent than usual.

I spoke to Charles Winship, a senior research analyst at the food industry consumer research company Technomic, to find out why you can’t walk into a Trader Joe’s without being accosted by turkey and stuffing-flavored potato chips and why they won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. (Spoiler: You can blame the death of the middle class.) Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Was there a start to the trend of “novelty food items” as we know them today?

I would point to Taco Bell with their Doritos Locos taco, which came out with in 2012. That really set the stage, because it was such a successful product, that it encouraged a lot of people [to] bring this approach of creating mash-ups that leverage brand names and [are] engineered with craveability and indulgence in mind.

Ever since then, even though not all of these items have been successful, enough of them have been driving sales or driving conversation around a brand that operators are continuing to pursue a strategy.

Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos taco launched in 2012 and became one of the biggest fast-food successes of all time.
Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images for Taco Bell

What’s an example of a success and a failure?

Gosh, this example might be both a success and a failure: If you look at Starbucks, last year they did their Unicorn Frappuccino and it was very successful — they just did it [for] a very limited time and got a lot of attention for it. A couple months later, they tried it again and it wasn’t as successful, which to me showed how hard it can be to really [produce] a good novelty item.

They repeated the formula of the first time, so it kind of speaks to some of the other underlying factors at play. Starbucks pretty much said after that, “We’re still going to do this, but we realized we came back too soon.”

How do food companies come up with ideas for novelty items? What’s that process like?

You can look at it from multiple standpoints: One would be you have a lot of innovation around, especially in big cities, the independents. This is where you really see the forward-thinking ideas, so something like a Cronut, or like a fried chicken sandwich on a donut. A lot of these ideas will start there and then they’ll gravitate toward the mature level, which is when they hit the fast food chains.

Something we’ve been seeing a lot recently, too, is chains looking internally. If you’re an international chain, [you can look] internally at what you do in another market. This is something that McDonald’s is doing at their Chicago location at their headquarters.

It’s also something we see outside of the US. Some chains — we call them “import LTO’s” [limited time offerings] — will highlight what’s usually positioned as a novelty item in one country but it’s a core menu item somewhere else. In Australia they have a spicy chicken sandwich from Hong Kong and a couple salads from France. And they usually have some twist to them that you wouldn’t necessarily expect at an American fast food chain.

They’ll usually screen their own concepts through, like, a consumer survey, which can help provide them some direction on whether or not an item will be worth pursuing.

So for example, when Oreo decides it wants to make a watermelon-flavored Oreo, do you think they know that it sounds gross and that they do it anyway?

I’m sure they do. They probably have some sort of scale where it’s like, “It might be gross, but people will talk about it.”

Starbucks’s Witches Brew Frappuccino, the Halloween flavor for 2018.
Louisa Chu/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

Is there a public relations playbook for that? Like, “Oh hey, we have this new thing, please write about it, wink!”

[What] seems to be more and more of the process now is thinking about how an item you have is going to translate into the digital world. I mean, brands have come out and said that they’re designing items or unit designs with social media in mind.

And then the other part of the trend is the general social media trend of having something that will be shared. Buffalo Wild Wings put glitter on wings. It’s showing how menus are adapting to the environment where a lot of people are going to take pictures of their food.

Do you think there’s more potential for novelty items around the holidays?

A lot of the holiday flavors will carry some sense of nostalgia for consumers, and you tend to just see cravings for these flavors intensify during the holiday season.

How do these novelty food trends sort of relate to food trends as a whole?

The industry has just become so competitive recently, and it’s becoming so saturated that where the novelty items come in is [they’re] something that’s really going to help you stand out. Even if it’s just for a couple days, brands can get people talking about them and coming in to visit when they normally wouldn’t.

Another thing that our data is showing is that healthy eating behavior is kind of diverging, so we’re seeing a growing gap between healthy consumers and indulging consumers. Simultaneously, we’re seeing more demand for health food options and more demand for indulging options. That’s where a lot of novelty items come in: appealing to that indulgent consumer. When you look at a lot of the mashups that chains have been pushing, you know it’s over-the-top indulgent.

How do you see that gap between healthy consumers and indulgent consumers playing out?

Well, that’s something that we see as correlated to socioeconomic status, so in that regard it’s something that we think is going to continue over the long run if you continue to see the middle class shrink and society becomes an upper class and a lower class.

So basically because the middle class is dying, novelty food items will keep getting weirder? Jesus, that’s bleak.

It will likely be resembled in eating behaviors, with higher-income consumers tending to be healthier and lower-income consumers tending to be a bit more indulgent.

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