Here then the item:
The National Association for the Specialty Food Trade (NASFT) is a fine organization. Among their many worthy activities, they recognize especially meritorious products each year with awards - now called sofi(TM) awards. I'll spare you the translation of that acronym so I can avoid going off on a ranting tangent about silly phrases chosen for their capacity to be reduced to catchy acronyms.
But back to cases - they are good people, and they recognize excellence in their field with these sofis. Now the main point here today is to list the 30 categories in which products are judged and awards are given. I want to take the time to do this, and encourage you to read through the list because, all by itself, the category list tells us some important things about the Specialty Food business.
Here then, the list:
- outstanding new product (this year's winner, a new artisan potato chip)
- outstanding product line
- outstanding appetizer, antipasto, salsa or dip
- outstanding condiment
- outstanding cooking sauce or flavor enhancer
- outstanding USDA approved organic product
- outstanding baked good, baking ingredient or cereal
- outstanding chocolate
- outstanding confection
- outstanding dessert or dessert topping
- outstanding cookie
- outstanding cheese or dairy product
- outstanding cold beverage
- outstanding diet and lifestyle product
- outstanding foodservice product
- outstanding food gift
- outstanding jam, preserve, honey or nut butter
- outstanding innovation in packaging design or function
- outstanding oil
- outstanding cracker
- outstanding snack food
- outstanding salad dressing
- outstanding frozen savory
- outstanding hot beverage
- outstanding meat, pate or seafood
- outstanding pasta sauce
- outstanding pasta, rice or grain
- outstanding vinegar
- outstanding soup, stew, bean or chili
- outstanding non-food specialty item
Picking products at random off specialty food store shelves, it seems you are (roughly) as likely to find a cracker as a pasta sauce, a chocolate as a salsa, or a cookie as some sort of meat, pate or seafood item (where all three proteins are taken as a single combined category). The picture we get with this quick methodology seems consistent with what I've seen in stores. Lots of shelf-stable food accessories. Not many frozen or perishable foods. Not surprising.
But this product mix is a danger to the specialty food trade as we've known it. With people under ever more time stress, the market for meals ready to eat is growing fast. And most specialty food stores are not in that business. Moreover, people don't want to make extra stops, and upscale supermarkets are carrying more of the specialty items that were once the exclusive province of the specialty stores. Even those whose business includes the likes of fine wine or cheese are under attack from the upscale supermarkets. These two trends, growing sales of quality prepared foods and supermarket/specialty product-mix overlap are bad news if you're an independent, small-format specialty retailer.
Now consider the market from the producer side. If independent retailers represent a decreasing share of the market and a comparatively small number of supermarket chains are growing dominant - what does this imply for creativity, and small-scale new product introductions? Can real specialty foods thrive in a consolidated market?
I believe the time has come for the NASFT to actively promote an increased role for high-quality prepared foods and perishables in specialty retail. Who can doubt that independent specialty stores and the thousands of creative and talented small producers they can call upon have natural advantages over large corporations when it comes to creating and presenting real foods of quality - including center of plate? One easy way to start would be to revisit the structure of the sofi award categories. Another would be to foster retailer education that recognizes the strategic situation and encourages retailers to branch out. Neither man nor store lives by cracker, cookie, and condiment alone.