I’m not a big spender, but yesterday I shelled out an obscene amount of money for two packs of Kentucky Breakfast Stout , a highly acclaimed, hard-to-find beer that’s aged for more than a year in oak bourbon barrels.
Clearly I’m a big fan of craft brews, and suffice to say I’d have to fall on some insanely hard times before I’d give them up. That’s a sentiment shared by many fellow beer fans out there and those who enjoy specialty foods in general. Like organic products, which are a part of the specialty industry and have maintained strong sales  on their own during the rough economy, specialty items have value that goes beyond price. In this case it’s the taste, the experience, the joie de vivre. You might save money by ordering a root beer instead of that double-hopped IPA, but you won’t be as happy.
The latest numbers from National Association for the Specialty Food Trade  bear this out. Sales in the industry grew 7.7% in 2010, to more than $70 billion. All told, specialty accounts for 13% of all food sales. Standouts include functional drinks, which seem to have taken over the beverage sections of all the stores I go to, followed by yogurt and kefir. It’s no secret gluten-free has seen stratospheric growth, and the NASFT’s figures show just how much: 119 new products last year, compared to 67 in 2009.
Health concerns have helped propel the category, especially right now. But beyond functional claims and eco promises, artisan foods have that hard-to-live-without appeal that’s an important part of the whole wellness equation. Indeed, cheese and chocolate may not prolong our lives (or maybe they will), but they do, many agree, make our lives more enjoyable. Quality and happiness are qualities that retailers shouldn’t lose sight of amidst all the antioxidants, vitamins, probiotics and other nutrients out there aiming to keep our bodies working like well-oiled machines.
The specialty food trade will continue to grow through loyalty — and mergers and acquisitions will bring more items to market. Coca Cola now fully owns  Honest Tea, and last month, Anheuser Busch bought  Chicago craft brewer Goose Island Brewing Company. As a lover of specialty foods, I think it’s great to see this trend acknowledged by the big guys. But like many, I’m also hoping they can uphold the standards of quality that made these products so great in the first place.
(Creative Commons photo by Bernt Rostad )