According to the Specialty Food Association’s “The State of the Specialty Food Industry 2013,” specialty food is among the fastest growing U.S. industries with sales skyrocketing 22.1% between 2010-2012. Last year alone, dollar volume grew by 14.3%.

The group defines “specialty food” as “foods and beverages that exemplify quality, innovation and style in their category. Their specialty nature derives from some or all of the following characteristics: their originality, authenticity, ethnic or cultural origin, specific processing, ingredients, limited supply, distinctive use, extraordinary packaging or specific channel of distribution or sale. By virtue of their differentiation in their categories, such products maintain a high perceived value and often command a premium price.”)

Such a higher value perception has placed many offerings firmly in the arena of gourmet products, as consumers look to store-bought foods and beverages for high-quality options, but without the higher prices these items would command in foodservice.

The “2013 Ipsos Affluent Survey USA” projects that there are now 62.5 million U.S. “affluents,” up more than 6% over the past two years (affluents are defined as adults aged 18+ living in households with at least $100,000 in annual household income). Compared to 2012, affluents’ average income rose 4.6% to $200,200, and their net worth rose 2.0% to $1.01 million.

Even as the affluent population in the U.S. has increased in size and financial resources (according to the Ipsos Survey USA”), a shrinking middle class is looking to more cost-effective options. In 2012, per the Specialty Food Association report, total specialty food sales topped $85.87 billion, with cheeses and cheese alternatives as the largest category ($3.6 billion in sales) in 2012, followed by yogurt/kefir ($2.3 billion). The report notes the fastest growing specialty food categories include energy bars and gels, shelf-stable functional beverages, frozen fruits and vegetables, yogurt and kefir, and eggs.

Only three of the 51 specialty food categories (excluding other categories) declined between 2010-2012: rice cakes, pudding and shelf-stable desserts, and refrigerated pasta and pizza sauces.

The specialty market share of cheeses and cheese alternatives was firmly on display at the 2014 Winter Fancy Food Show, which saw a host of the world’s most-respected cheesemakers introduce a number of new cheese options.

BelGioioso Cheese added Crumbly Gorgonzola, a “somewhat limited-edition cheese” made from cow’s milk with a little sheep’s milk, which adds a buttery flavor and makes the texture creamier than a blue made of all cow’s milk, the company says.

Rawstruck, the first raw-milk goat cheese from Coach Farm, is made just one day each month, while Best Cheese’s Melkbus125 Winter is a raw cow’s milk Gouda layered with spices, including cardamom and nutmeg. Kelley Country Creamery is adding Timothy Farmhouse, a line of small-batch cheeses, the first being BallyByron, a farmstead original cheese.

From the Irish Dairy Board, Londoner Double Decker is a British cheese that merges Red Leicester and Double Gloucester. Double Decker is one of seven cheeses of the new Londoner brand from the Irish Dairy Board, and its packaging and labels feature such iconic images as palace guards and London taxis. The core range of cheeses (Londoner Cheddar, Londoner Red Leicester and Londoner PDO West County Farmhouse Cheddar) is sold in 7oz blocks. In addition, the Londoner brand is expected to add new flavors of blended cheeses each season, including salted caramel and one that blends cranberries, raisins, and candied lemon and orange peels—with cinnamon.


In a Name

For many consumers, a sign of a product’s “gourmet” nature is the endorsement of a celebrity chef, a group which has seen an abundance of food and beverage licenses in recent years. In late 2012, White Coffee Corporation launched a new coffee line with renowned chef/restaurateur and TV personality, Emeril Lagasse. The new line featured four distinctive coffees evocative of New Orleans dining experiences. Emeril’s Signature Blend Coffees’ flavors include a deep and savory New Orleans Dark Roast, a rich Caramel Bread Pudding, Bam Morning Blend and the smooth-and-creamy Kicked-Up French Vanilla.

Meanwhile, last year saw the Cake Boss himself, Buddy Valastro, launch a namesake product for consumer kitchens. The Cake Boss teamed with Dawn Foods to launch cake mixes and frostings at retailers across the country. A fourth-generation baker and star of TLC’s TV series Cake Boss, Next Great Baker and Bakery Boss, Valastro lent more than merely his nickname to the Cake Boss cake mixes and frostings; he worked hand-in-hand with the manufacturer in developing the line.

“Not everyone has the time to whip up a Cake Boss-approved dessert from scratch,” Valastro explained. “I want to arm home bakers and baking novices alike with the supplies to produce a mouthwatering cake.”

Each cake mix came with a pouch of bakery crème, Valastro’s secret to making velvety, moist cakes. The cake mixes are available in six flavors: Va Velvet (red velvet cake); It’s Your Party (confetti cake); Decadent Devil’s Food (devil’s food cake); Chocolate Trifecta (triple chocolate cake made with chocolate liquor); Primo Yellow (simple yellow cake); and Divine White (white cake).

For some manufacturers, the route to gourmet positioning can be found with innovative ingredients and the word “artisan” on the label. Progresso’s Artisan Soups, for example, promise “a new repertoire of ingredients” and come in five varieties to demonstrate the Progresso brand’s “commitment to celebrating authentic taste and exploring new flavors.”

Progresso culinary expert Heidi Teoh led the development of the Artisan Soup line, aiming for a twist on classic soup varieties. The soups featured unique spice blends, like Masala curry and coconut milk, while incorporating simple, high-quality ingredients, such as kale, that are new to the Progresso ingredient repertoire. Fire-roasted red peppers, butternut squash and root vegetables, like turnips and parsnips, can be found in the line. The Artisan line includes vegetable bisque (Creamy Tomato with Roasted Red Peppers and Masala Curry Butternut Squash) and hearty soup varieties, including Rustic Tomato with Chicken and Dumplings, Creamy Potato with Sausage and Kale, and Smoky White Bean and Winter Vegetables.


At a Premium

Of course, for some consumers, “gourmet” can have a separate meaning entirely and can even denote products with a natural positioning. PB Crave, for example, highlights premium natural ingredients, such as white chocolate, raspberries and wild honey, in its new line of peanut butter flavors. This gluten- and cholesterol-free line of peanut butters features such varieties as Cookie Nookie (a combination of milk chocolate chips with natural cookie dough flavor), Razzle Dazzle (made with sweet red raspberry, cool white chocolate and rich dark chocolate), Coco Bananas (blending bananas, cocoa honey and chunks of sweet chocolate) and Choco (featuring semi-sweet and dark Belgian chocolate)—all made with fresh-farm peanuts.

In describing the line, PB Crave founder Curt Riess utilizes the “artisan” term: “(Our) four innovative peanut butter flavors are artisan-crafted from quality ingredients and proven practices,” he explains.

Proven practices would also describe the method to manufacture a line of sausage from Pata Negra LLC, which opened its first U.S. plant in January of 2014. Managed by a Spanish group with more than 25 years of experience in the European food industry, the company produces Imperial, a line of authentic, dry-cured sausages in such varieties as Imperial Chorizo Hot, Imperial Chorizo Mild, Imperial Chorizo Blanco and the soon-to-launch Imperial Fuet. Strict to Spanish tradition, Imperial products are never heat-treated, instead undergoing a lengthy dry-curing process.

“Our new facility features special drying rooms with strict temperature and humidity controls to ensure optimum conditions for the natural curing of our sausages,” explains Ignacio Saez de Ibarra, managing director for Pata Negra. “Our Spanish artisan technique vs. mass production lends our products a distinct personality and taste...”

A new snack introduced in late 2013 also has European roots. The inspiration for Vintage Italia’s Pasta Chips was a trip by company developer Jerry Bellow to Tuscany, where he enjoyed fresh pasta dough that had been gently baked, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt. His take on the snack incorporates semolina flour, ancient grains and Italian herbs. The cholesterol-free Pasta Chips have 4g of protein and can be found in such Italian-inspired flavors as Marinara, Alfredo, Spicy Tomato Basil, Garlic Olive Oil and Mediterranean Sea Salt.


Sweet Times

Tying the gourmet trend into the local/sustainable movement, Torn Ranch uses all-natural, sustainable and organic ingredients from local California farmers and has introduced a line of gourmet handcrafted snacks. Its Chocolate Covered Crème Filled Graham Sandwiches are an upscale version of a classic comfort treat, made from two premium graham crackers filled with house-made lemon, strawberry or marshmallow crème, and drenched in Torn Ranch’s signature dark chocolate. The company notes it handcrafts its own chocolates, confections and baked goods, and uses dried fruits and nuts from California’s fertile valleys.

Lake Champlain Chocolates (LCC) is adding four new dark chocolate bars to its popular organic line, in an effort to merge gourmet, indulgence and wholesome.

“There has been explosive growth in dark chocolate, especially where indulgence meets better-for-you ingredients,” says Catherine Wisloski, director of Marketing at LCC. “The market is also seeing continued cravings for salty-sweet flavor combinations.”

“Chocolate is no longer just a special occasion at the end of a meal,” she notes. “High cocoa content, nut inclusions and the tang of salt make bars an appealing choice for the organic chocolate consumer who wants to enhance their health, explore new flavors, and indulge or reward themselves throughout the day.”

The exploration of new flavors is a distinct attribute not only of gourmet, but certainly, the gourmet trend ties into the consumer willingness to sample new flavors.

“People also are touring the world one meal at a time through more adventurous cuisine choices,” explains Jennifer Zegler, consumer trends analyst with Mintel. “Today, 62% of adults who have eaten ethnic food say they are confident in their ability to prepare ethnic and international food, and some 66% of ethnic food eaters who are parents say their children enjoy eating ethnic or international food. In 2014, we will see new cuisine trends, including Brazilian and Russian food, given the connection to sporting events, but also a rise in popularity of emerging fare, such as Vietnamese, Argentinian or African. Exposure to a new country through its cuisine could lead to a desire to learn more about its culture; cook a recipe at home; or buy something locally made online.”