Take a peek into the average American's grocery cart, and you're likely to find such a wide variety of food products that you may wonder how they could possibly all be linked to the food chain. According to the consumer foods trade magazine New Product News, 13,266 new food products were introduced to supermarkets in 1996. And that's not counting the number of new comestibles lining the shelves of specialty, gourmet and health-food stores; gift basket shops; farmers' markets; delicatessens; restaurants; county fairs; caterers; and even department stores. Nor does the figure include specialty products sold via mail order catalogs, from airline dinner menus, or from an increasing number of sites on the Internet.
When it comes to food, it seems, Americans can't get enough on their plates. But that doesn't mean they will eat--or buy--just anything. "The consumer is fickle," says Stephen Hall, author of From Kitchen to Market: Selling Your Gourmet Food Specialty (Upstart Publishing) and president of Food Marketing International, a food consulting firm in Tucson, Arizona. "Successfully positioning your product so it appeals to the consumer is very complex--it has to do with price, packaging, where it is on the shelf, how it looks and its content."
Simply getting your product on the shelf isn't good enough--especially when you're contending with thousands of competitors and consumers' shopping whims. "[The specialty food business] has historically been an easy-entry business," says Justin Rashid, co-founder of Petoskey, Michigan-based American Spoon Foods Inc., a fruit preserves and condiments manufacturing company he started with partner Larry Forgione in 1982. "It's at the next level--when you try to expand your distribution--that it becomes a very tough business."
In other words, getting your product off the shelf and into consumers' hands is more important than getting it on the shelf in the first place. Among other things, it requires filling a need, leveraging trends and marketing aggressively. Though all this may sound like a tough nut to crack, the entrepreneurs on the following pages prove that with all the right ingredients--plus a little persistence--they've got all the fixin's they need for success.