Tales from the world of fancy food

Every foodie has a story and for the most entrepreneurial those stories fuel the creation of new brands. Often the story is of a passion that must be followed or a problem crying out to be solved, and each year many new stories are told at the Specialty Food Association’s Summer Fancy Food Show in New York.

This year’s lineup of new companies includes several that are focused on finding ways to make healthier products without sacrificing taste.

Angela “Mama” Millin grew up learning to cook traditional Italian food in the kitchens of her grandmother and mother, but coping with a breast cancer diagnosis spurred her to make changes. Millin consulted with nutrition experts in a quest to change her diet and the shift to “cleaner” ingredients helped her lose 50 pounds in a year. Part of her daily diet during that year was a tasty organic brownie she created that was gluten-free, soy-free and vegan.

The brownie proved so popular with family and friends that Millin asked her daughter, also named Angela, whether she thought it could be a business.

“I said ‘No, you don’t have a business. You have a brownie,’” daughter Angela replied.

Mama went back to the kitchen and created 26 more products, and the pair winnowed the list down to 11 and launched Pure Batch, with the original brownie and several kinds of truffles and cookies including a healthier version of the traditional Italian pignoli.

Personal stories and health concerns drove the creation of some of the other new food and beverage companies on display.

Susan Parnell discovered the healing properties of herbs and teas while dealing with chronic Lyme disease and she created Wild Leaf Tea to share those benefits in a brand that people would associate with activity and fun. The teas come in brightly colored canisters and each has a one-word name such as “Happy” and “Smart” that aims to simply convey the properties of the product.

Next up, the company is launching a line of coffee and tea fusions dubbed Rebel Blend.

 Wild Leaf Tea
Photo: Wild Leaf Tea

A universal issue drove packaged food industry veterans Christopher Plummer and Jairo Senise to launch Nature’s Serving. About 80% of Americans don’t eat enough vegetables, Plummer said, and the pair determined to help increase veggie consumption with the creation of plant-based slices that can top a burger instead of a slice of cheese and provide an entire serving of vegetables. The company also created sweet and savory versions of a snack chip with the same benefits.

The products, developed by food scientists at Cornell University, use chicory root as a base and are seasoned with familiar flavors. “It’s a convenience vegetable – a vegetable for vegetable haters,” Plummer said.

The founder of P-nuff Crunch also put his knowledge of food science to work. Juan Salinas holds a PhD in food science and a master’s degree in sports nutrition, and when he was laid off from his job at a big CPG company he used what he had learned to create a high-protein snack from peanuts, navy beans and brown rice. The result – a peanutty-flavored vegan puff that resembles a Cheez Doodle.

A layoff also drove Suzanne Foley to launch Port City Pretzels, turning a long-held family recipe into a snack that she figured would prove popular in her small town in New Hampshire. They did and more – six months ago, Foley found herself at the point where production couldn’t keep up with demand. She leased more space, bought more equipment and hired employees to meet the growing demand.

Some stories depend on serendipity. Andrew Bourke was a former Montana ski instructor who had moved to New York City to carve out a career in finance. He happened into a restaurant called Walker’s where chef Arturo Cruz was serving salsa made the way he remembered his mother making it as a child in El Tenayo, Mexico.

Bourke was struck by the flavors and the possibilities, and he put together the financial backing to launch Tenayo, a line of salsas that are now sold in Whole Foods Markets in New York City.

Some of the other new products on the shelf this year:

Holi Aioli, a line of shelf-stable vegan spreads created by chef John-Paul Guerrini after he was hired to cater a vegan event.

Yo Mama’s Foods, marinara and balsamic sauces created by friends from the University of Florida from old family recipes of co-founder and Chief Foodie David Habib.

Simply Auri, fruit-flavored beverages made from the Wood Ear mushroom, an ingredient popular in Asia because of its health benefits.

Lebby, a chickpea-based snack that comes in four flavors including dark chocolate and hot chili.

Nature’s Kitchen, a line of Jamaican-Indian fusion sauces and marinades.

Sunup Green Coffee, canned cold coffees made from green, unroasted beans.

Some facts about specialty foods

US specialty food sales hit $127 billion last year, a 15% jump from 2014, with 78% of sales happening at the retail level and 22% at foodservice, according to the Specialty Food Association.

Top 10 specialty food categories by retail sales                  

  1. Cheese and plant-based cheese $4.4 billion
  2. Frozen and refrigerated meat, poultry and seafood $3.8 billion
  3. Chips, pretzels and snacks $3.6 billion
  4. Coffee and cocoa (non-ready-to-drink) $3.2 billion
  5. Bread and baked goods $2.8 billion
  6. Chocolate and other confectionary $2.2 billion
  7. Yogurt and kefir $2 billion
  8. Frozen lunch and dinner entrees $2 billion
  9. Refrigerated lunch and dinner entrees $1.9 billion
  10. Condiments, dressings and marinades $1.9 billion

Source: Specialty Food Association

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