Claiming 15 percent share of the total food market in 2014, specialty food is defined as products of premium quality that may be made by small or local manufacturers, feature ethnic flavors or contain the best available ingredients.
Retail sales of specialty food grew 19 percent from 2012 to 2014, well ahead of the 2 percent increase for all food, but the market’s growth has slowed slightly since rebounding post-recession, likely due to its maturity, the Specialty Food Association said in its 2015 state of the industry report. Food service sales, which account for 22 percent of specialty food dollars, have grown nearly 31 percent between 2012 and 2014, while retail sales rose nearly 20 percent. The report measured sales of specialty food through mainstream, natural and specialty food channels, excluding private label sales and sales through Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods Market stores.
Fifty-one of 58 specialty food and beverage segments grew from 2012 to 2014. Fifteen segments now exceed $1 billion in annual sales, including cheese, coffee, meat, poultry and seafood, chips, pretzels and snacks, candy, and yogurt.
“The time is now for specialty food,” said Ron Tanner, vice president of philanthropy, government and industry relations for the Specialty Food Association. “Consumers are looking for new tastes, foods with fewer and cleaner ingredients, health attributes, and products that are made by companies with values they care about. All of these define specialty food.”
Cheese leads the specialty food market with $3.7 billion in sales, followed by coffee, coffee substitutes and cocoa ($3.5 billion), which has surpassed the category of frozen and refrigerated meat, poultry and seafood ($3.2 billion) in sales since the previous report. Bread and baked goods, with $2.4 billion in sales, has bumped yogurt out of the top five categories, and nuts, seeds, dried fruits and vegetables debuted in the top 10 with $1.3 billion in sales in 2014.
Unit sales of specialty food grew nearly 14 percent from 2012 to 2014. The fastest-growing categories in terms of unit sales were refrigerated pasta and pizza sauces, which grew 78 percent since 2012, refrigerated pasta (53 percent) and eggs (53 percent). Functional beverages, nut and seed butters and energy bars and gels also posted notable gains.
“Local” remains an important claim for specialty food products, and “non-GMO” is expected to be the top natural or ethical claim in the next three years, according to the report. Emerging trends in the category include smoked flavors, pickled products, seaweed, beets, and Mediterranean, Indian and Thai cuisines.
But while a bright spot in the US economy, the specialty food industry faces its share of challenges. The biggest business threats for manufacturers, according to the report, include deep discounting by competitors, non-GMO verification requirements and continuing litigation around health claims.