The Flavor Showdown, a competition taking place at the recent SNAXPO23, pitted exhibiting companies against each other to see who could concoct the best, most innovative flavor creations. After two days of attendees tasting the entries, judges tallied the votes and named the winners.

Chesapeake Spice bested the competition in the sweet category, for its French toast flavor. Elite Spice reigned on the savory side with its DC Signature Mambo Sauce.

“The snack food industry’s leading edge is our ability to stay ahead of the trends and anticipate the next big consumer craze. All the entries in this year’s Flavor Showdown proved they are innovators in this space,” says Christine Cochran, CEO of SNAXPO23 organizer SNAC International. “Congratulations to Elite Spice and Chesapeake Spice for taking this year’s title and thank you to our incredible sponsors who made the Flavor Showdown happen.”

Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery connected with leaders from the first-place teams to get the scoop on how they came up with and executed their champion flavors, and what they thought of the competition:

  • Alexa Vaughan, R&D, Chesapeake Spice
  • Homer Nieto, R&D manager, Elite Spice

Jenni Spinner: How did your team come up with your flavor?

Alexa Vaughan: I was at a friend’s house a few weeks ago for brunch and he made Hawaiian bread French toast roll-ups complete with a cream cheese filling. They were delicious! It’s a blessing and a curse to be a Food Scientist because we are truly never off duty; especially when it comes to family and friends and their countless questions. Being named Alexa doesn’t help. The head chef said, “Alexa, make these better”, so I asked for a drizzle of maple syrup, and let’s just say that another batch of brunch was orchestrated for the group. Having grown up in New England, no breakfast is ever complete without real maple syrup. Growing up and into my adult years, every Sunday I would have waffles with my grandparents; said waffles were always smothered in butter and syrup – sometimes with a hefty scoop of ice cream when my grandfather was in charge. Special occasions called for French toast as it was messier and more time-consuming.

When given the opportunity to create something for SNAXPO, I wanted to make something that everyone could relate to and enjoy. I’m big on creating snacks that taste great and reconnect consumers with an enjoyable food memory. I’ve moved around a lot for my career and there’s truly nothing like returning to your hometown/roots for a food tour. I began to think, how could I bring Sunday mornings to SNAXPO? I wanted to replicate the melt-in-your-mouth sensation and a flavor that made people feel warm and fuzzy inside while being away from home at a conference.

Homer Nieto: Since we are headquartered 25 miles from our nation’s capital, we wanted to showcase this regional flavor, which has become quintessential to Washington DC. Mambo sauce has an addictive flavor that our team has always believed would enhance a wide variety of snacks.

JS: Could you please talk about the process of creating and perfecting the winning flavor? Feel free to credit any of the staff who had a hand in coming up with the winning entry.

HN: This year, we were excited to share a half dozen concepts as snack samples to SNAXPO attendees. Twenty members of our team (east and west coast) collaborated to conceive ideas. They develop multiple seasoning and flavoring profiles to be applied on a wide variety of snack bases. All of the finished concepts were potential winners, which made it difficult to select the entries for the competition. We chose the winner by consensus.

AV: I decided to start with this French toast concept and see where it would take me. I’ve learned throughout the years that you can have a seasoning that tastes amazing on its own, but unless you find the appropriate base for it, it will not shine. I made up a blend and headed to the grocery stores after work. As we all know, different stores offer not only different brands but also different products. I hit the local big three and gathered an array of bases both for the Flavor Showdown and for what we were going to showcase at our booth.

For the French toast, we wanted a product that could withstand Florida’s humidity while sitting out in a bowl. We also wanted a neutral base, so I picked up unsalted potato chips, unsalted kettle chips, lightly salted puffed corn, and popcorn kernels. Jeremy [Fair, sales representative] came into the lab to screen flavors on every base imaginable with me and pick our favorites. The puffed corn gave us exactly what we were looking for; it carried the flavor best and truly melted in your mouth. We also had a few hallway spectators from different departments, including one of our owners, taste. Let’s just say that a bag was requested for his grandchildren and when he came in the next day with their stamp of approval, I knew that we were good to go! As I’m proofreading this, I realize the grandparent/grandchild relationship and French toast carrying on!

JS: Please talk about the base you decided to showcase the flavor on—and other bases you think might be good candidates.

AV: We decided to showcase the flavor on the puffed corn because, in our opinion, there is space for that category to grow. Butter and caramel flavors are really the only offerings on retail shelves for the sweet category in our region. I don’t think that any flavor is 100% turn-key, so ingredient levels such as sweetness, butter/maple impact, etc. may have to be tweaked to get the best flavor impact for other bases. That being said, in the snacking realm, the seasoning has potential on popcorn, pork rinds, nuts, granola, pita chips, pretzels, veggie snack bases, other extruded bases, and protein bars. It would also perform well in sausage, bacon, dips, and spreads (hummus, butter, plant-based butter), cereal, dairy (yogurt, ice cream), etc.

HN: The kettle chip was chosen as a sturdy platform to support the spicy tanginess of the mambo seasoning. The pairing of the base and seasoning offered a crunchy salt/fat/acid/heat snacking experience. The mambo seasoning is ubiquitous across all food categories and would be successful on almost all savory snack bases such as tortilla chips, nuts, pork rinds, pretzels, and plant-based extrusions.

JS: If you got a chance to sample the competition, please feel free to share what you thought some of the most notable entries were, and your thoughts on those flavors.

HN: There were a number of great entries in both categories. The Aquachile stood out to us in the savory category; it had authentic flavor and complemented the cashews. The winning sweet entry, French toast, was balanced, snackable, and addressed the comfort food trend.

AV: We were able to taste the competition in both categories and the competition was fierce (as expected)! Each flavor was unique and inspiring; it was evident that a lot of thought and work went into each submission. I’m lucky to be in R&D and attend shows as I get to see my work come to life and be enjoyed by others. From personal experience, enough samples for 1,000 people on a bench-top scale is A LOT, so kudos to all the behind-the-scenes work of blending seasonings, securing the base, making samples, bagging samples, labeling samples, shipping samples, etc. My personal favorite of the sweet competition was the cheesecake—again a food memory of a staple desert growing up so close to NYC—the mecca of cheesecake! Overall, I think if all the flavors presented were to launch, they would be successful in the marketplace!

JS: What does winning the competition mean to you, and what does it say about your company’s capabilities?

HN: Since its inception five years ago, a crowded field of companies have competed in SNAC’s Flavor Showdown. We have celebrated three first-place winners and two second-place runners-up; this demonstrates the superior talents and abilities of our team. Our goal is to conceive flavors and products that are craveable to consumers and will allow snack manufacturers to win market share.

AV: This was the first time that we have ever entered the competition and we secured first place, so we are extremely humbled and honored! We truly didn’t know what to expect other than strong competition. Although we manufacture seasonings for all BUs, savory is usually our sweet spot. To win the sweet competition, especially in the snack space, proves that we have a wide array of capabilities and additional categories to expand into. These few sentences are probably downplaying it, to be blunt, our team was ecstatic and it’s been the opening topic in nearly every conversation for the past two weeks internally!

Related: Chesapeake Spice, Elite Spice triumph in SNAXPO 2023 Flavor Showdown