Thursday, September 20, 2007

Open letter to Ron Tanner, Editor of Specialty Food Magazine

Well, folks, I sent along a draft of this piece to Ron Tanner of Specialty Food Magazine for comment several days back, but have not heard from him or anyone else there. Either my email was snagged in their spam filter or they didn't feel any need to comment. Not sure which.
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:
  1. outstanding new product (this year's winner, a new artisan potato chip)
  2. outstanding product line
  3. outstanding appetizer, antipasto, salsa or dip
  4. outstanding condiment
  5. outstanding cooking sauce or flavor enhancer
  6. outstanding USDA approved organic product
  7. outstanding baked good, baking ingredient or cereal
  8. outstanding chocolate
  9. outstanding confection
  10. outstanding dessert or dessert topping
  11. outstanding cookie
  12. outstanding cheese or dairy product
  13. outstanding cold beverage
  14. outstanding diet and lifestyle product
  15. outstanding foodservice product
  16. outstanding food gift
  17. outstanding jam, preserve, honey or nut butter
  18. outstanding innovation in packaging design or function
  19. outstanding oil
  20. outstanding cracker
  21. outstanding snack food
  22. outstanding salad dressing
  23. outstanding frozen savory
  24. outstanding hot beverage
  25. outstanding meat, pate or seafood
  26. outstanding pasta sauce
  27. outstanding pasta, rice or grain
  28. outstanding vinegar
  29. outstanding soup, stew, bean or chili
  30. outstanding non-food specialty item
For the purposes of this discussion, we are not interested in the award categories that are not food categories per se . Outstanding new, or outstanding line, for example could be any sort of offering. A quick review of the nature and distribution of the remaining categories should provide a decent approximation to categories and proportions of products found in self-identified Specialty Food stores.

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.

1 comment:

Ron T., Editor, Specialty Food Magazine said...

Dan, I am writing regarding the posting on Noshstalgia regarding the
sofi awards. We appreciate your thoughts on the awards and how they
reflect the breadth and quality of products within the specialty food

I was impressed by your observations regarding the need for prepared
foods and other perishable products within specialty food stores as
they compete with supermarkets, natural food stores and other
retailers. From my experience of traveling to stores across the
country for the magazine, I must say that most do have prepared foods
and perishables. They know that they need fresh products to bring
people in on a regular basis.

The challenge for the NASFT regarding these products and the sofi
awards are that most of them are either prepared at store level or
purchased from local purveyors, such as an artisan bakery or nearby
farm. Those suppliers are not NASFT members in that most of our
members sell beyond their local market. Thus, we do not have an award
category for those.

Again, thank you for your observations and for letting people know
about the sofi awards.--Ron Tanner