The U.S. Food Market—Opportunities for Greek Producers!

Phil Kafarakis, President of the Specialty Food Association (SFA) in New York, discusses the U.S. food market and the potential for Greek producers to increase their presence in the largest consumer market in the world.

Please tell us about the U.S. Food Market—its structure and trends.

Food has always been a critical element of the American economy, the American marketplace, and the American character. But changes are certainly underway. You may have heard the old line “As American as apple pie.” These days it’s more like “as American as baklava and stuffed dolmades!” The national palate is expanding to embrace a wide range of flavors and dining experiences. Americans are experimental in their own kitchens, not just when eating out. This is good news for the international food industry.

As American consumers become more adventurous, specialty foods sales are growing. Total U.S. specialty food sales in 2015 hit a record $120.5 billion. That’s 14% of all retail food sales in the country. And 60 percent of consumers say they have bought a specialty food or beverage in the last six months.

In fact, specialty food sales are increasing at an impressive rate—sales rose over 20% between 2013 and 2015. The types of places where purchases are made is also expanding—it’s not just grocery stories or gourmet markets, now shoppers report making purchases in natural food markets, farmers markets, big club stores like Costco, and small gift shops. And, of course, online.

More than ever, online buying is part of the specialty food shopping experience. Over half of consumers purchase specialty food online. It seems clear that apps and online delivery services for groceries and meal ingredients are going to be more important in the coming years.

Does the specialty food consumer match a certain profile?

The growth we see in specialty food consumption is tied to assorted changes in marketplace behavior driven by changes in our population. The American demographic now leans heavily toward the Millennial Generation—those currently aged 21-38. The second largest demographic group remains the Baby Boomers—age 52 to 70. Followed by Generation X—those 36 to 51 year-olds—and our youngest consumers, the under-21 population that we call the I-Generation.

Americans spend between 10 to 15% of their disposable incomes on food. For most, that’s their third highest expenditure, following housing and transportation. Six out of 10 U.S. adults say that they buy specialty food—but Millennials buy the most, followed by Gen X and Baby Boomers.

Millennials are big snack consumers but they are also doing more and more cooking at home. They report using specialty foods both for everyday use and as a treat. Millennials are influenced in decision-making by their interests in environmental and social causes as well as by a drive to impress and entertain.

Gen Xers are most likely to purchase specialty foods for convenience in meal prep—they’re the ones interested in meal kits and prepared sauces, for instance. They’re reading labels and looking for quality ingredients. And they’re the group most likely to report being turned off by GMOs.

Baby Boomers often use specialty foods for cooking from scratch at home. They consider themselves fairly knowledgeable about food and like new experiences—food is a common outlet for their adventurous side. They are also taking health concerns seriously and steer clear of artificial ingredients while expressing interest in qualities like fair trade and sustainable practices.

As its new President, are you implementing a new strategy at the Specialty Food Association—and how are Fancy Food Shows evolving?

I’ve been President of the Specialty Food Association for about eight months and, over that time, have worked with our board of directors, various committees, the membership, and staff to refocus our strategic direction to better serve our American members and our global partners.

Ultimately, we are evolving our mission to meet the changing and growing expectations of our industry and the marketplace. The SFA legacy is to connect buyers and sellers, and we commit to building and improving our ongoing efforts through developing enhanced research projects, leveraging available technologies, and making use of all the other resources at our disposal.

Obviously, the two Fancy Food Shows (the Winter Show in San Francisco each January, and the Summer Show in New York in June) play a big role in our efforts. We’ve begun making some changes to the Shows that we’ll be building on over the next few years. For instance, we are adding to the number and quality of the education sessions we offer to provide attendees with information that will directly improve their businesses. We’re also fine-tuning our registration process to ensure that those exhibiting will meet with more verified buyers at their booths.

We’re looking to add more opportunities for industry professionals to advance and connect to one another. For instance, in April, we’re hosting a two-day Business Summit where we’ll have top subject-matter experts in digital marketing, e-commerce, operations, and food safety share their knowledge with attendees. It will be a great opportunity to learn and network.

How do you view the potential of Greek companies in the U.S. market?

We know through our research that the Mediterranean diet is big with American consumers. Greek food, according to the importers we surveyed last year, is the third largest “emerging cuisine” in the U.S. With more and more consumers looking for flavorful, healthy foods, it seems likely that Greek suppliers will continue to be sought after in the American marketplace.

We would like to see an increase in the range of Greek manufacturers bringing their products to the American market. Beyond the much-loved core categories of olive oil and dairy, there is a lot of potential here for manufacturers of jams and jellies, spices, nuts, sweets, and grain-based products.

Along those lines, tell us about the strategic collaboration of the Specialty Food Association, AmCham Greece,  and its TradeUSA Department.

The SFA aspires to partner with AmCham Greece and its TradeUSA Department to spread the word on how the SFA and its new strategic plan will advance the global market. Our media and marketing platforms can greatly enhance the Fancy Food Show experience, before, during and after the Show takes place. Ultimately, we hope to make direct connections between Greek suppliers and American businesses—be it buyers, distributors, or investors.

We look forward to building our relationships with the Greek food industry and other international markets. After all, food itself is a universal “language” that we all enjoy and we all enjoy sharing. It’s a great space to work in too!

Please remember that the U.S. market for food is very much alive and well, and that the SFA wants to help you access that market.

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