As consumers have gotten back to their go-go-go lifestyles, their pandemic-era enthusiasm for from-scratch cooking has waned. But ongoing concerns about inflation are motivating people to continue preparing meals at home. In fact, a recent Lending Tree survey found that 67% of Americans say they’re dining out less this year due to rising food costs. 

Consumers who are cutting back on restaurant meals are increasingly turning to shortcut gourmet and specialty food products, like marinades, sauces, and frozen foods, to help them craft sophisticated home-cooked meals with less time and effort. This has sent demand for gourmet food products soaring. According to a recent Research and Market report, the global specialty food category is expected to climb from $167.46 billion in 2022 to $204.06 billion in 2026, growing at a CAGR of 5.1%.

Of course, health-conscious consumers not only want products that deliver an elevated dining experience, they also want offerings that deliver on flavor, nutrition, and values. “Now more than ever, consumers want more out of their food—they want elevated products made from real ingredients that fit their lifestyle, fuel their bodies, and are good for people and the planet,” notes Hugo Pérez, Senior Vice President of Marketing, ZENB U.S. “This means they are looking for products with minimal, clean ingredients that provide functional health benefits without sacrificing taste.”

Retailers looking to meet demand for products made with clean label ingredients may find opportunities in stocking their freezer aisle with more heat-and-eat meals and other shortcut offerings. “The way to think about frozen gourmet is that frozen in the U.S. is the new fresh,” notes Pete Speranza, CEO, Wicked Kitchen. “Frozen allows you to be more straightforward with ingredients as preservatives are not needed as much. Consumers benefit by choosing frozen as a way to get new fresh flavors and a cleaner ingredient deck. Being a chef-driven brand, we are providing just that—craveable and delicious foods that you can pop into the microwave for an easy and tasty meal.” 

Whether you’re stocking the freezer or refrigerator aisles or the snack section, it’s important to make sure you’re appealing to a wide range of diet preferences and tastes, says Eric Ersher, Founder and CEO of Zoup! Specialty Products. “With a background in the soup restaurant business for 24 years, we’ve seen first-hand how important it is to offer something for everyone with products that meet a variety of taste and dietary preferences. For consumers following a low-carb diet, our Chicken & Riced Cauliflower Soup delivers comforting, brothy chicken flavor, but with riced cauliflower swapped in for noodles. Plant-based diets continue to be popular, so it was important to us to offer options like our new vegan Black Bean Chili and Garden Vegetable Soup.” 

Consumers are also seeking out products that align with their values. “Consumers want to support meaningful change in the marketplace by voting with their dollars,” says Raveez Mohammed, CEO and Founder of Festive Chickpeas. “They actively support businesses, like ours, that strive to reduce, reuse, and recycle wherever possible.” 

Indeed, many brands have found that switching to more sustainable packaging, for instance, is a boon for sales growth. “We’ve been seeing a decline in canned soup sales and believe this is in large part due to packaging preferences shifting toward recyclable and reusable glass jars,” explains Ersher. “Zoup! was actually the first to bring premium broth packaged in glass jars to market. Following suit with our soups was an easy choice.” 

Sustainability is just one value-driven mission that is top of mind for consumers; they also want to support brands that operate with integrity and that prioritize people over profits. “Nowadays, trust is a driving factor behind consumers’ purchase decisions. They trust that there aren’t any hidden ingredients; that when a brand says it contains no sugar, the manufacturer isn’t sneaking in sucralose or weird alt-sweeteners,” explains David Delcourt, Founder and Chief Flavor Office of GrownAs* Foods and Seed Ranch Flavor Co. “They care about corporate social responsibility. They want to trust that when the brand makes claims of sustainability, that the brand isn't just greenwashing. They want to ensure that the environment is truly at the center of the company’s brand ethos. Is the packaging sustainable? Is the brand lowering its carbon footprint in some way? Does the brand give back to the community in any way?” To that end, Delcourt notes that Seed Ranch and Good A** Foods “have the first full recyclable and compostable mac & cheese on the market, continue to use recyclable glass bottles for our sauces, and support our local humane society and food assistance organizations.” Other popular brand initiatives include working toward reducing food waste, supporting local farmers and using less water in products. 

Retailers who make the effort to learn the stories behind emerging food brands and communicate them to their customers are primed to win. “That’s what consumers want—they want to be more connected to their food,” affirms Tonia Farman, co-Founder and CEO of Queen of Hearts. “I see retailers that are giving opportunities to brands that are really mission driven and people are responding to those retailers. So it’s also a differentiator for the retailer.”

7 More Trends Driving Demand

1) Allergy-friendly: “Consumers appreciate options that they can feed their family and friends, regardless of their dietary restrictions,” says Rosa Dixon, co-founder of Raised Gluten Free. “For instance, we are bringing the ultimate comfort food to families with our artisanal, allergy-friendly, sweet and savory pies.” 

It’s important to understand production lines to ensure allergen safety, adds Gael Orr, Director of Marketing, Once Again Nut Butter. “Once Again’s products are all gluten-free certified, and our tree nut and seed butter products are also peanut free, because our peanut butter products are produced in a dedicated, SQF-certified facility to prevent cross contamination with our almond, cashew, and sunflower butters.” 

2) Low sugar: “Most of us know sugar is bad for us,” says Giancarlo Maniaci, co-founder of Shameless Snacks. “Consumers want to enjoy the indulgent tastes they love in a product that has a low glycemic advantage.” 

3) Plant-based: “We’re seeing a steady demand from consumers for more tasty plant-based foods from pizzas to ready meals to ice cream and desserts,” says Speranza. “Variety is key and consumers want plant-based options in every food category, which is exactly what Wicked Kitchen will continue to provide.” 

4) Nostalgic comfort: “Flavor-wise, we’re seeing a trend toward nostalgic, feel-good recipes, like our Vegetable Pot Pie, Southern Peach, and Strawberry Rhubarb pies,” says Dixon. 

5) International flavors: “Global flavors such as Mexican, Italian, and Indian continue to trend and we know our consumers want plant-based foods that pack a punch in flavor,” says Speranza. “We see that bold, flavor-forward options will continue to trend.”  

6) Legumes: Beans have growing appeal in a variety of products thanks to their high fiber and protein content, says
 Mohammed. “Consumers love chickpeas and they want them in more creative and innovative ways, such as our unhusked ‘chickpea hearts,’ which have the perfect crunch to surprise and satisfy our customers.” 

Pérez adds that opting for a legume-based pasta, such as ZENB’s yellow pea based offering, is an easy way to up the nutrition of favorite comfort-food dishes. 

7) Healthy Fats: “One ingredient that we’re seeing more attention on is healthy fats,” notes Farman. “It’s not a trend. Healthy fats are here to stay. We need more healthy fats in our system. This includes non-hydrogenated oils, cold-pressed seed oils, and omega-rich ingredients that are so good for cellular, heart, cognitive, and muscular health.”

5 Secrets to Growing Your Gourmet Bottom Line

1) Shine a spotlight on your unique offerings: “Retailers play an important role in the success of gourmet food products, and it’s in their best interest to support trial and purchase, especially as the category becomes more crowded with new and unique offerings,” notes Pérez. “Tried-and-true tactics like special end caps and store sections will always be effective ways to promote products, making them stand out and catch customers’ attention.”   

2. Get creative with samples: Sampling is a great way to surprise and delight customers in the store, says Danny
 Pollak, CEO and Founder, Solula. He encourages retailers to showcase products in ways that elevate consumers' eating experiences. For instance, pair his brand's plantain chips with guacamole or shrimp ceviche or show how it can be used in a cheese plate. “You might even offer recipe cards or pair a product in a bundle with related items—anything to get people to understand what the product is and that it’s a better eating experience.” 

3. Promote full meals: “Because convenience is a major factor for consumers shopping for prepared foods, I recommend retailers group complimentary items together when possible, such as placing a display of artisan bread near a shelf of premium soups,” suggests Ersher. “This way, consumers can quickly envision what a fully composed meal might look like and easily buy the necessary components.” 

4. Lean into labels: “Retailers should make it as easy as possible for shoppers to find the items that fit their lifestyle by calling out popular attributes such as ‘keto,’ ‘gluten free,’ or ‘plant based,’” recommends Orr. “Also, educate store workers whenever possible, so they can in turn educate shoppers on what makes the products unique, whether that’s simple ingredients or sustainability efforts by the company.“

If the messaging is too complex to fit on a label, consider adding a QR code to the sign, or using your social media to highlight a specific brand or story, suggests Farman. “Including QR codes on product packaging can also be helpful for brands who want to communicate more complex messaging, such as the mission-based story behind a brand and how ingredients are sourced.” 

5. Align yourself with the right brands: “I think it’s really important for retail buyers to understand what skill sets the merchant or brand has, and what they’re doing to market that product,” advises Maniaci. “It’s important from a retailer’s perspective to align themselves with brands that understand how to reach their target customer, because ultimately, their marketing is going to drive awareness, and the sales conversion is more likely to happen in store. If you align yourself with the brands that are doing the right marketing, it’s going to naturally drive the growth of that business.”  WF 

"Offer recipe cards or pair a product in a bundle with related items to get people to understand that the product is a better eating experience." 

—Danny Pollak, Solula