Gen X, millennials are a growing force behind fancy food trends

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Thousands of retail and foodservice buyers, distributors, media and others descended on the Jacob Javits Convention Center Sunday for the first day of the Summer Fancy Food Show.

More than 34,000 are expected over the Specialty Food Association’s annual three-day show, where they’ll check out the latest specialty products from domestic and international companies of all sizes, from startups still operating in incubators and looking to get their first products on grocery shelves to storied food purveyors sampling their latest flavors.


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Buyers from major companies including Kroger, Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s, UNFIStarbucks and Dean & DeLuca attend the show each year seeking the next new artisan snacks, vegan baked goods and sparkling beverage that’s going to tempt their customers to spend.

And all have good reason to make the trip, as Mintel Consulting Director David Lockwood told attendees during a session dubbed “The State of the Specialty Food Industry.”

Specialty food sales in the US hit $148.7 billion last year, a 9.8% increase over 2016. Mintel and SPINS/IRI teamed with the Specialty Food Association to create a trend report that shows that, while the industry segment is starting to mature, its sales are still growing about three times faster than overall US food sales.

Sales in the segment are on track to keep growing by 5% to 6% annually for the next five years, and specialty food is on track to grow from 16.3% of the total US food market this year to 19.5% by 2023, Lockwood said.

And a particularly key statistic for retailers and foodservice operators is the fact that specialty food consumers – dubbed SFCs – spend an average of 23% more per week than non-SFCs.

In years past, baby boomers have set the trends, but that’s shifting as the generations mature along with the industry. Gen X and older millennials do more of the spending on specialty food as they focus on family life, Lockwood said. While their older counterparts are still key consumers in the industry, their influence is lessening.

SFCs enjoy shopping for local and regional products and they’re willing to pay more for quality ingredients, Lockwood said. They’re also label readers who like to talk about what they find on labels, even to strangers in the grocery aisle.

And the grocery is where most of the spending happens. Seventy-six percent of US specialty food sales happen at retail stores, while 22% of spending occurs in foodservice channels and 2% is done online.

The online segment is growing rapidly, Lockwood said, but it still faces some challenges including the fact that it’s more difficult for new brands to gain traction and be discovered online than in the store. Logistics can also be complicated and companies might need to reformulate recipes to extend the shelf life for products that might spend more time in warehouses before reaching the consumer.

The Specialty Food Association began in 1952 as a trade group to help cheese importers promote their brands. Today, plant-based cheese joins traditional dairy cheese to top the list of top 10 specialty foods based on retail sales. Refrigerated plant-based meat alternatives and frozen plant-based meat alternatives are first and third, respectively, on the top 10 list of categories with the biggest dollar growth.

And plant-based products including meat alternatives, plant-based milks and tofu fill the top four spots on the top 10 list of specialty food categories by market share.

The plant-based category is flourishing as more consumers look for ways to take animal products off their plates at some meals, eating a flexitarian diet rather than becoming strictly vegetarian or vegan.

Foodservice distributor Sysco has recognized that trend, Lockwood said. The company has launched a plant-based platform to provide products for venues including campus dining halls and health care facilities that are often leading the way when it comes to making a shift towards more plant-based dining.

A few more takeaways from the session:

  • Women still lead when it comes to grocery shopping, but men are gaining. Sixty-seven percent of women said they’re solely responsible for the grocery shopping compared to 54% of men, and 31% of women and 40% of men said they share responsibility.
  • When it comes to restaurants, specialty food consumers want to be able to customize their orders and choose from a menu featuring local and regional ingredients, Mintel/SPINS data show. They also want the chance to upgrade to premium ingredients and they care to learn the stories behind the foods they’re eating.
  • Half of the top 10 best-selling specialty categories are beverages, led by water and sparkling water, and collectively the specialty beverage category generated $11.8 billion in US sales in 2018.
  • Dieting trends have shifted. Men are dieting more than women and they’re often choosing harder to follow plans like high-protein and low-carb plans. Additionally, today’s dieters are much more likely to try new trends and mix-and-match diets during the same period, Lockwood said.
  • About 64% of specialty food shoppers buy ingredients for dinner at home, while 35% are buying breakfast foods, data that show the dinner segment may be maturing while there’s still plenty of room to innovate for the morning meal, he said.

This article first appeared on Smartbrief.com.