CHICAGO — Dairy cheese, whether it comes from cows, goats or sheep, along with plant-based varieties, were plentiful at this year’s Winter Fancy Food Show, in Las Vegas.

The event marked the Specialty Food Association’s first live trade show in two years. While cheese dominated the dairy space, premium butters and frozen desserts also could be found among the more than 800 specialty food exhibiting companies. The prominent theme of the show was comfort foods with a twist. Such products speak to consumers who continue to seek new yet familiar experiences at home amid the ongoing pandemic.

The $170.4 billion specialty food industry encompasses foods and beverages, and their specialty nature includes attributes such as exotic origin, particular processing (and often an intentional lack thereof), design, limited supply, unusual application/use, compelling packaging or channel of distribution/sale.

In 2020, specialty food sales accounted for 21.5% of all food and beverage sales. Cheese has long maintained the No. 1 position in terms of dollar share of sales (6.2% in 2018), but according to The State of the Specialty Food Industry US market, which was published in June 2021, the meat, poultry, seafood (frozen and refrigerated) category ousted cheese from the top spot, growing 30% in 2020 and 36% from 2018 to 2020. The two categories each exceeded $5 billion in 2020 sales, according to the Specialty Food Association.

Both meat and cheese became pandemic staples, with many consumers willing to splurge on specialty varieties in order to bring excitement to their daily meals, especially after cooking fatigue set in. Often, the two are used together. Think wagyu burger with imported Havarti cheese and prosciutto di Parma with marinated whole milk mozzarella.

Prior to the pandemic, sales of cheese for Belgioioso Cheese Inc., Green Bay, Wis., were split between retail and foodservice, with mozzarella and Parmesan dominating its foodservice business into universities, hospitals and quick-service restaurants. The balanced mix enabled the company to easily pivot and deliver more cheese into retail in those early days of stocking kitchens.

“We had a balanced mix of business so we were able to quickly shift our focus,” said Cathy Shifflett, director of retail sales and broker management. “We did not dump any milk and, in fact, even picked up some business. We are now pretty much back to that even split, and all that Italian cheese we made is aging nicely.”

As national away-from-home dining dollars increased during the summer of 2021, Belgioioso developed a relationship with Subway, Milford, Conn. Its fresh mozzarella became a permanent item available for all sandwiches, salads and wraps, with the brand identified on menu boards.

At the Fancy Food show, Belgioioso introduced some new convenience items for retail, including 8-oz sliced logs of “Scamorza-Rella,” which is a cheese like mozzarella and provolone. It’s available in traditional and hickory-smoked varieties.

“Our new Artigiano mocha cheese is available in 5-oz retail wedges and 11-lb wheels for in-store cutting,” said Umberto Marconi, vice president of marketing. “This cheese is bathed in rich cocoa and Italian espresso. We like to say it is an awakening of sweet and savory flavors.”

For FrieslandCampina, Paramus, NJ, the world’s largest Gouda and Dutch cheese producer, the pandemic had a positive impact on retail sales, which is the company’s focus. One of the drivers was consumers’ burgeoning interest in creating charcuterie platters. While charcuterie, by definition, refers to meats such as salami, sausage and pate, the concept has evolved to include an array of cheeses, fruits and nuts.

“We set out to create the right pack in the right size for the right price,” said Debbie Seife, director of marketing. “Our new Royal Hollandia ‘entry packs’ are perfectly sized for consumers creating boards who want to try some new cheese types or add variety.”

The company offers six of its most popular charcuterie-centric cheeses in 3.5-oz to 4-oz packs, which invites curious consumers to purchase a couple options without the commitment of the typical larger-size chunk. The cheeses come in shelf-ready packs designed for easy merchandising in the deli with marketing language of “pick and mix.” Each individual pack includes information on the cheese’s flavor profile and suggested pairings. The company now includes such details on most of its cheeses as part of a rebranding and new product rollout program.

FrieslandCampina’s portfolio includes more than a dozen cheese brands. One of the new cheeses that debuted at the Winter Fancy Food Show was Gayo Azul Cotija. In addition, there’s new Royal Hollandia snacks, which are grab-and-go items. The pouch that holds the five or six individually wrapped 20-gram portions of cheese is made from recyclable paper and may be merchandised standing up or hanging from a peg.


Additional innovative applications

Snacking and entertaining — even within a bubble of friends or family — fueled many innovations this past year.

Artful Apps, Parkville, Mo., used the show to introduce its Crackerology Cracker Kits. The company was founded in July 2021 by three friends who identified the need for quick, gourmet, high-end appetizers that could be paired with cocktails, beer and wine.

The all-in-one kits were created so everything needed to make 24 appetizers or desserts is included in the box and may be assembled within minutes. The four savory varieties all include shelf-stable, dairy cheese from Dairyfood USA, Blue Mound, Wis. Wine & Rosemary, for example, contains savory crackers with a touch of red wine, rosemary and a hint of pepper, along with cheese schmear, preserves and a nut topping.

Anderson International Foods, Jersey City, NJ, introduced Stuff n’ Roll, which is a sheet of fresh whole milk mozzarella that may be filled with flavorful ingredients to create low-carb snacks or upscale hors d’oeuvres. The company is preparing to debut Brigitte’s Spirit line of brie, which comes with an accompanying layer of fruit (apricot, fig or guava) paste for easy plating.

New goat and sheep cheeses focused on flavors. Bellwether Farms, Petaluma, Calif., introduced fresh sheep cheese in flavors such as Moroccan spice and Sonoma herbs. Websterville, Vt.-based Vermont Creamery gave attendees a peek at its new line of indulgent goat cheeses: strawberry spritz, which has sweet hints of champagne; cherry cocoa, which is reminiscent of black forest cake; and sweet truffle, which is made with Italian black truffles and a touch of honey.

For Responsible Foods, a food startup company founded in 2019 in Reykjavik, Iceland, cheese or skyr are the base of its first offering: Næra Icelandic Snacks. The popped, dried snacks are processed and made with 100% green energy, according to the company.

Green energy, along with other sustainable practices, such as grassfed, were evident throughout the expo. Wyke Farms debuted Ivy’s Reserve vintage cheddar to the US marketplace. The product is being marketed as the world’s first carbon neutral-branded cheddar. Matured for 18 months under wood, the process gives the cheese a sweet, nutty and complex cheddar profile.

Glanbia Ireland’s branded division showcased its Truly Grass Fed line, which, in addition to cheese, offers a range of butters. The newest product is a spreadable salted butter.

Other noteworthy dairy innovations spotted at the show included Parmalat Nata Crema para Desayuno (Nata Breakfast Cream). It is a sweet, clotted cream made with whole milk. Popular in Mexico and Latin America, the spread may be used on toast topped with honey, put on fruit or mixed into a dessert.

Little Jasmine, Alhambra, Calif., showcased its US-produced brown sugar milk tea boba ice cream made with boba imported from Taiwan.

Heinlein Foods USA Inc., Miami, debuted its new Karinat frozen Greek yogurt, which comes in berry, dulce de leche, original and passion fruit flavors. Gelato Festival, West Hollywood, Calif., a company that collaborates with chefs around the world to develop gelato concepts for its cafes in Europe and Los Angeles, is entering the retail pint business. Its debut dairy product is La Dolce Vita, a chocolate hazelnut flavor, and the company has vegan oat options as well.