Spring 2015
Specialty food industry keeping up with consumers’ diversifying palates By Zeke Jennings

America’s collective palate continues to expand in every thinkable direction, and the specialty food industry continues to expand right along with it. Nearly 60 percent of American consumers, roughly 145 million people, purchased specialty food products in 2014, according to the Specialty Food Association.

Products and recipes geared toward specific diets — namely gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan — are becoming more and more prevalent on store shelves, as are options heavy with flavors native to Africa and Asia, such as curry and Sriracha.

The shelves at Art of the Table, a specialty food, beverage and cookware store located in the trendy Heritage Hill neighborhood of Grand Rapids, Michigan, are stocked with interesting and unique products. Co-owner Amy Ruis, whose store has been named one of Gourmet Retailer’s top 50 specialty food retailers, has no trouble finding distributors.

“I think there are more people trying to make specialty products,” said Ruis, who has also noticed a growing number of retailers offering them. “We get inundated all the time from new brands. Some are great new products and some are horrible products. So, there are people trying to make and trying to sell. It’s still on the rise.”

The Art of the Table business model is to stock “whatever looks good” mostly from moderately small distributors. If they’re local, that’s even better. Ruis has even phased out a few industry staple brands because they’ve gotten too big. “It’s not specialty anymore if it’s in a grocery store,” she said. “I try really hard to differentiate us from that.”

What’s hot

Many people may be experimenting with health-conscious vegetable-based or gluten-free diets, but don’t think for a second that foodies have lost their lust for the sweet and the decadent.

Stonewall Kitchen
Stonewall Kitchen

“Everyone loves bacon!” said Janine Somers, director of marketing for Stonewall Kitchen, one of the most successful lines in the specialty food industry. “We’ve seen tremendous success with our bacon products (Maple Bacon Onion Jam, Maple Bacon Aioli, Boozy Bacon Barbecue Sauce) and, in fact, are working on some new bacon product profiles for our July 2015 launch.”

Fusing American consumers’ traditional love of smoky and savory with their growing taste for spicy also has been successful for many companies, including Stonewall, which offers products like Maple Chipotle Grille Sauce and Red Pepper Jelly. There is even a San Francisco-based company dedicated solely to combining smoke and spice, simply named Bacon Hot Sauce.

Spreads and other condiments are good sellers at Art of the Table. However, the biggest mover is something perhaps even dearer to foodies than bacon.

“Our biggest seller is chocolate — we sell a ton,” Ruis exclaimed. “We have a local purveyor (Patricia’s Chocolate) that we use. She makes all of her chocolate out of her home in Grand Haven. We also have a lot of small artisan producers from around the country.

“We do a lot with Jeni’s (Splendid) Ice Creams. That is a huge thing for us these days.”

The Scottsdale, Arizona-based Indulgent Confections is still a relatively young company, but has already experienced plenty of success. Chief operating officer Glen Flook describes Indulgent Confections’ line as “high-quality chocolates and nuts” that provides retailers with an “impulse gift that can be purchased by their customers for less than $10.” Almond Raspberry Bark, Pecan Pralines and Blueberry Pomegranate Nut Crunch are the most popular products, Flook said.

“Based on our current acceptance into the market, it looks like we have filled a void (in the gift-giving category of gourmet food),” Flook added.

Chocolate Carmel Truffle from Door County Coffee & Tea
Chocolate Carmel Truffle from Door County Coffee & Tea

Beverages are still big sellers, including wine, craft beer and especially gourmet coffee. Vicki Wilson, founder and CEO of Door County Coffee and Tea in Wisconsin, said her company’s seasonal brews are especially popular. They include the Door County Brites line in the spring and summer, as well as a series of fall and holiday flavors.

“There is just something about flavors like orange crème in the spring, pumpkin spice in the fall and candy cane during the holidays that really sell along with the season,” Wilson said. Door County added single-serve cups designed for Keurig models in 2013 and they’ve been very successful, Wilson added. 

Building gift packages

Since Art of the Table sells food, cookware, beer, wine and cookbooks, it offers no shortage of combinations for those looking for the perfect gift basket. In fact, the amount of options can be overwhelming. Ruis trains her staff to ask unsure customers questions and respond with simple suggestions that can be built upon.

“For instance, if they like red wine, then you ask ‘Do they like pasta, too?’” Ruis said. “You can go small, just like a pasta and a sauce. But then you can add a wine, you can add truffle oil, you can add salt — you just keep adding from here. If someone wants to spend a couple of hundred bucks, we can throw everything inside a pot. The sky is the limit.”

In addition to a pot or pan, cutting boards and cookbooks make for a great gift base in place of what would traditionally be a disposable basket or bag. “We stack stuff on the cookbook. People love it,” Ruis said. “It’s a great way to give a meaningful gift.”

Many distributors offer themed packages. “If someone walks into a store wanting to purchase a gift for a grill master, we may suggest or three or four barbecue sauces, along with some grilling tongs and a grill platter,” Somers said. “Or, for the baker, a baking mix along with a batter bowl, whisk and tea towel. We offer a variety of premade gift sets ranging in price points, flavor profiles and themes (breakfast, grilling, baking, etc.).”

Wilson suggested a collection of flavors in small quantities, which works well for beverages. “If looking for coffee only, we will steer them toward our full-pot bags which makes just one perfect pot,” she said. “This allows them to gift a variety … when they don’t know what someone’s favorite might be. Or, if looking for a complete gourmet package food package, it is fun to find all of our bestsellers and put together a little bit of everything from this group until we meet their desired price point.”

Zeke Jennings

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