Specialty Food Sales Are Growing and Surpassed $100 Billion in 2014

Cheese Leads and Pasta, Eggs, Nut Butters are Rising

California cheese fruit and olive plate
Specialty food sales are on the rise. Susie Wyshak

In The State of the Specialty Food Industry 2015, the Specialty Food Association reports that in 2014, sales of specialty food topped $100 billion for the first time. Retail and foodservice sales reached a combined record $109 billion.

So, what are specialty foods?

Specialty foods are broadly defined for the report as products that have limited distribution and a reputation for high quality. Traditionally, specialty foods have also focused on beautiful or unique packaging, which is almost a given with the types of foods we see in a Whole Foods or gourmet shop.

Why the massive growth in specialty food sales?

Ron Tanner, vice president of philanthropy, government and industry relations for the Specialty Food Association offers a theory about the industry's growth:  "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."

My theories on some contributors to growth span the buying process:

  1. The ease of ordering (and re-ordering) for specialty food retailers and other wholesale buyers through online services such as Buyer's Best Friend. Easier to order mean more stores will stock specialty food from small manufacturers. And these stores will have an easier time keeping the food on their shelves.
  2. More food falling into the definition of "specialty." As more consumers become "foodies" thanks to the availability of exotic and delicious foods from Whole Foods to WalMart, food makers follow the trends. We love simple, clean, preservative-free foods that taste amazing and are made with ingredients we can pronounce.

    And the growth of artisan food incubators, funding sources and access to affordable vendors from design to packaging have removed barriers to entry for new food producers.
  1. Big companies producing or acquiring more specialty food. Krave Jerky is the perfect example. When the Hershey Company acquired Krave, they instantly increased the jerky maker's distribution possibilities.

What are the most popular specialty food product categories?

The industry, fueled by food entrepreneurs starting small businesses, now has 15 segments that exceed $1 billion in sales each.

These categories include cheese; coffee; meat, poultry and seafood; chips, pretzels, and snacks; candy; and yogurt.

Interestingly, the top ten best-selling categories have shifted since 2013.

  • Cheese tops the list at $3.7 billion in sales.
  • Coffee and cocoa leaped over frozen and refrigerated meat, poultry and seafood to land  second place.
  • Bread and baked goods rose to the top five, replacing yogurt.
  • Nuts, seeds, dried fruits and vegetables landed in the top 10, totalling $1.3 billion in sales in 2014.

What are the fastest growing specialty food categories?

In total, unit sales of specialty food grew 13.6 percent.

  • Refrigerated pasta and pizza sauces are on the rise, up 78 percent since 2012. You may have noticed a lot more choice in quality pasta and pizza sauces, which would explain the rise.
  • Next come refrigerated pasta and eggs, both up 53 percent.
  • Sales of functional beverages, nut and seed butter and energy bars and gels are also increasing.

What types of specialty food buyers did the sales data come from?

The report tracks U.S. sales of specialty food through supermarkets, natural food stores, specialty food retailers, and foodservice venues.

How do the sales figures break down?

Retail sales of specialty food hit a record $85.5 billion in 2014, representing 78 percent of total U.S. sales of specialty food.

In retail, this growth represents an increase of 19 percent from 2012 to 2014. In contrast, "all food" sales grew only 2 percent.

Foodservice sales, to buyers such as cafeterias, bakeries, and restaurants, make up the other 22 percent of all specialty food dollars, reaching $24 billion in 2014. Foodservice purchasing of specialty food is trending upward, growing a hefty 30.7 percent since 2012.

This trend in foodservice sales may align with the growth in cheese, pasta, pasta sauces etc. — all which go hand in hand with the type of foods popular in restaurants.

What claims are consumers looking for?

Retailers interviewed for the report said "local" is the most important product claim today. The retailers predict that local will continue to be important in the coming years. About 66 percent of the retailers surveyed sell products that have non-GMO claims, which includes all organic products, as genetically modified ingredients are not allowed in certified organic products.



Get the details

An eight-page overview of the report, produced in conjunction with research firms Mintel International and SPINS/IRI, is featured in the spring issue of Specialty Food Magazine.

Find the State of the Specialty Food Industry 2015 report highlights, plus a larger summary report with charts and data..