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Among the many educational and inspirational events at the just-finished New York Fancy Food Show was an eye-opening look at the state of that industry, based on research carried out by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade (NASFT), Mintel International, and SPINS.
The research was based on scan data from various stores, identified by brand, and excluding private label products. The presentation, "The State of the Specialty Food Industry 2008," provided a comprehensive overview of this exploding business, which reached a hefty $47.9 billion in sales in 2007. Ron Tanner, NASFT's v.p. communications & education, quipped that this makes the specialty food industry larger than the budget for the state of New Jersey.
Among other notable findings from the research:
--Specialty food accounts for 12.5 percent of all retail food sales
--Supermarkets remain the dominant selling venue for specialty foods, representing 70 percent of sales
--3,535 specialty food products were introduced in 2007, a total up 6 percent from 2006
--Cheese and cheese alternatives, at $3.3 billion, is the largest category, followed by condiments, bread/baked goods, and chips/pretzels/snacks
--37 of 41 specialty food categories posted sales growth between 2005 and 2007, and eight categories - candy and individual snacks; refrigerated juices and functional beverages; milk, half and half, and cream; frozen and refrigerated entrees, pizzas, and convenience foods; yogurt and kefir; carbonated functional and RTD tea and coffee beverages; cold cereals; and energy bars and gels -- experienced growth higher than 33 percent.
Such growth is all the more remarkable given the faltering economy. Although importers and distributors admitted to the researchers that they've been challenged to keep prices as low as possible, consumers are still interested in specialty foods, and are willing to pay more for that perceived higher quality.
Specialty retailers, meanwhile, concede that it isn't always easy to determine which new products will find a sustained sales audience, and that competition with large natural food stores and supermarkets, where consumers are able to indulge in one-stop shopping, is daunting.
On the other hand, economic pressures such as energy costs are making artisanal and local products more important to the specialty food mix at retail.
Despite all of the challenges, specialty food is on track to account for 20 percent of all food sales by 2015.
At a Fancy Food Show seminar held the same afternoon, Boston-based food think tank Oldways presided over a food tasting that aimed to combine health and wellness with flavor and taste. Samples included an assortment of authentic French cheeses, a three-bean salad from Goya Foods, and Lucini Italia olive oil, for which attendees received detailed instructions on how to sample, straight from company president David Neuman.
As well as enjoying the food samples, attendees learned about Oldways' continuing efforts to promote the much-vaunted Mediterranean Diet, which focuses on fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, nuts, and olive oil. The diet has been the subject of much positive press, and has spawned, via Oldways' Mediterranean Food Alliance program, the Med Mark, a packaging symbol found on healthy foods and drinks traditional to the region.