NEW YORK — The specialty food market reached $170.4 billion in sales last year, up 13% from 2018, according to new research from the Specialty Food Association.

As the pandemic propelled a consumer shift to cooking and eating at home, specialty food sales at retail surged more than 19% in 2020 alone. Meanwhile, specialty sales to foodservice plunged by 30%, and industry estimates predict a years-long recovery for the segment.

The top categories in retail dollar sales were meat, poultry and seafood, cheese and plant-based cheese alternatives, chips, pretzels and snacks, bread and baked foods, coffee and hot cocoa mixes, frozen desserts, chocolate and other confectionery, lunch and dinner entrees and condiments, dressings and marinades. The fastest-growing categories included seasonings, pasta and pizza sauces, frozen fruit and vegetables, refrigerated and shelf-stable creamers, plant-based meat alternatives, ready-to-drink coffee and tea, refrigerated pasta and tofu.

“The ripple across all channels of the specialty food industry has been tremendous,” said Bill Lynch, president of the Specialty Food Association. “We’ve seen businesses flex their creativity in ways they never could have imagined, from restaurants becoming pop-up specialty food grocers to makers increasing production to meet consumer demand. Despite these historic challenges, the industry has continued to innovate and grow, as outlined in our annual research.”

Impacts of the pandemic on specialty food shopping included a center-of-the-store renaissance as consumers packed home pantries as well as a shift in where grocery shopping occurs, namely online and in drug and dollar stores, which increasingly are featuring expanded grab-and-go and refrigerated sets. The report also found specialty brands struggled to gain visibility in-store and online over the past year, due to fewer opportunities for sampling and impulse purchases. Additionally, the specialty industry faces increased competition from mainstream companies in the plant-based market.