Winners of the 2014 Specialty Outstanding Food Innovation (SOFI) awards can attest to the fact that American food creativity is alive and well across our land. While Portland and Brooklyn might get more national press, SOFI awardees span from sea to shining sea. Like Waitsfield, Vt. (Tonewood; SOFI silver – new product); Kula, Hawaii (Maui Fruit Jewels; SOFI gold – confections); Nashville, Tenn. (Olive & Sinclair; SOFI gold – chocolate); Austin, Texas (Sticky Toffee Company; SOFI gold – cookie); Dallas,  (Hail Merry; SOFI silver – snack food); and Chicago (Simple Squares; SOFI silver – snack food).

Another interesting fact is that of the ten confoundedly outstanding companies profiled in this review, most of their founders are millennials; that is, born between the early 1980s and early 2000s. Marketers have long recognized millennials as an influential consumer group, reshaping our culture and use of social technology. Yet millennials also suffer from relatively high unemployment or underemployment, a consequence of the current jobless recovery.  The Pew Research Center estimated that their rate of employment has slipped to 63 percent in 2012 from 70 percent in 2007. The paucity of employment opportunities has motivated some millennials to get entrepreneurial, according to Entrepreneur magazine. Or, as the Director of the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality David Grusky says rather brutally in the article, “The implication is that this is a good time to be a capitalist, bad time for workers.”

Half of the ten outstanding confectionery products profiled below were developed by companies in business less than two years.

Welcome to the artisan economy, where millennials are following their passions, rather than their pocketbooks.

For chocolate makers and confectioners, the premium segment is the place to be. Sales at retail of premium candy and individual snacks jumped 17.3 percent between 2011 and 2013, ranking 9 out of 50 food categories in growth, according to the Specialty Food Association’s State of the Specialty Food Industry 2014 report.

The excitement was palpable at the Fancy Food Show; that is, in between World Cup matches.  According to the show’s organizers, the Specialty Food Association (SFA), this year’s show was the largest ever: 2,700 exhibitors, 300 of whom were there for the first time. With sales up 18.4 percent to $88.3 billion between 2011 and 2013, times are good in the gourmet food industry.

There are several factors at play: heightened consumer interest in small batch, artisanal foods; a desire to know where food comes from; clean labels; and health considerations.

“So it’s all coming together and it’s a great time for the specialty food industry,” notes SFA Communications Director Louise Kramer.

While strolling through the cavernous Javits Center, a number of interesting confectionery trends stood out, including:

  • Spirited: Craft confectioners tag-teaming with craft distillers to produce spirit-infused or flavored sweets.
  • Smokey: Whether the salt or the confection itself, cold-smoked ingredients are a siren song for guys or a Scheherazade layer of complexity for the choco-centric.
  • Fiery: Cult followers of Huy Fong Foods’ Sriracha can now enjoy their hot chili sauce in dessert or snack form.
  • Coconut: Shape shifting way beyond its traditional shredded or toasted usage, coconut reappears as a dairy-free caramel alternative, paleo-friendly macaroon, and ashen chocolate bar ingredient.
  • S’More Kits: The premiumization of the quintessential fireside treat.

Below, you'll find 10 of the best product examples of these trends. 

1. Bourbon Nib Brittle - Olive & Sinclair

Summer Fancy Foods

Don’t let his down-home Southern style fool you; founder/chocolate maker Scott Witherow is, in corporate speak, pushing chocolate’s envelope. When friends from nearby Corsair Distillery challenged them to get creative with some used bourbon casks, Witherow packed them with cocoa beans, bunged up the hole, and waited. From these bourbon-humidored beans, he made a peanut brittle with pieces of single-origin Ghanaian 67 percent dark chocolate. “The fudgy notes of the chocolate pair well with the bourbon, and the high rye-based bourbon flavors seemed to make a difference.”  Indeed it did, as their Bourbon Nib Brittle was awarded a SOFI Gold in the confectionery category.

No one-hit wonder in the world of craft American chocolate makers, the Nashville-based bean-to-bar chocolate maker has scored three SOFIs to date. In 2013, it won a SOFI silver in the chocolate category for its Mexican Style Cinnamon Chile bar and in 2010, a SOFI Silver for its Salt & Pepper Bar in the new product category.

This year, Witherow created a new line, called Chocuterie, a portmanteau of chocolate and charcuterie that includes such savory sweets as Chocolate Salami and Salt & Vinegar Caramel. The latter product packs “a flavor combo, like a gastrique. It’s tangy and sweet and fun.” Gastrique, which is a flavoring sauce of caramelized sugar deglazed with vinegar, harkens back to Witherow’s prior Le Cordon Bleu London culinary training.

Soon to be added to the Chocuterie line is the Duck Fat Caramel, “an idea born behind a duck blind.” By replacing the cocoa butter with duck fat and adding savory ingredients like kosher salt, cracked black pepper and thyme, the caramel — we were assured — will taste like a sweet confit. 

Olive & Sinclair; Bourbon Nib Brittle; 5 oz./142 g.; $12.99 S.R.P. OliveandSinclair

2. Smoked Cola Gumdrops - Quin Candy

Summer Fancy Foods

The transformation of America’s food heritage has finally reached the heart of candy land. Think American classic candies — Starbursts, Tootsie Rolls and gumdrops — but updated with natural/organic, small-batch and locally harvested ingredients. That’s what millennials and health-conscious moms are looking for. Is it no surprise that this breach was caused by a Portland-based company?

Quin Candy crafts American classic candies the old-fashioned way: handmade, using real fruit purees and minimal ingredients sourced locally. For example, its sea salt is sourced from the Oregon coast, the honey from local hives and the hazelnuts from a Portland farm.

“We make candy for today that has the uncanny ability to tug at the heartstrings of yesterday,” says owner/candy maker Jami Curl. Those candies of yore include caramels, lollipops, marshmallows, fruit chews and gumdrops. Why gumdrops? “It’s more approachable than pate de fruit and has far more mass appeal.” Although established only two years ago, the company’s mass appeal has been lauded by Fast Company, which placed the candy maker as #71 on its 2014 list of 100 most creative people in business.

Curl’s choice of flavors are not outer limits (no Sriracha gumdrops), but creatively reimagined. She utilizes layers of flavors that generate a more complex flavor profile. The Smoked Cola Gumdrops, using alder wood smoked sugar, are meant to evoke Coke bottle memories.

What’s trending? Her male customers are partial to smoked cola, blackberry tangerine, and cherry cola flavors; while women customers prefer cherry, strawberry lemon, and lemon tangerine. Quin’s target consumer is between 25 and 50 years old.

Quin Candy; Smoked Cola Gumdrops 20-piece gusseted bags; 6-8 oz./170 - 227 g.; $12 to $15 S.R.P. QuinCandy

3. Hana Collection Pates de Fruits - Maui Epicure

Summer Fancy Foods

Being in the right place at the right time has propelled the ter Horsts into the fabulous world of premium confectionery. In the first instance, the couple met in Beijing; she as an investment banker and he as a supply chain manager for a German hydraulics company. As their paths started intertwining, Lin drew upon her earlier Le Cordon Bleu London pastry arts training and ended up teaching pasty classes and baking wedding cakes that were soon featured in a leading Chinese bridal magazine.

Then in the second instance, the couple moved to Hawaii in 2012. Appreciative of Hawaii’s cornucopia of luscious tropical fruits, Lin started experimenting with making pates de fruits.

“Maui is one of the few places on this planet where you can find passion fruits, guavas, prickly pears, coconuts, papayas, mangos, raspberries, persimmons, loquats, pomegranates, strawberries, lemons, sour sops, Surinam cherries, jackfruits, cherimoyas, lavenders, turmeric, kefir limes, macadamia nuts, lemon grass, mints, to name just a few, all growing on a 700-sq.-mile island,” Lin ter Horst says in a press release.

“It just makes sense to create a product that takes maximum advantage of the best of what Maui has to offer.”

Chris relies upon his creativity and endurance — he is also a medal-winning triathlon athlete — to assist with sales, marketing and the processing of thousands of pounds of fruit.

Her colorful, jewel-like fruit gems contain 50 percent fresh fruit by weight, with flavors that seem to literally explode in your mouth. There is no substitute for using fresh, right-off-the-tree, ingredients.

“Most chefs don’t have the luxury of being able to work with fresh exotic fruits, having to rely instead on commercial frozen fruit purees,” Ter Horst tells Candy Industry Magazine. To maximize the appreciation of their dazzling colors, these “jewels” are not smothered in granulated sugar, a French custom to prevent sticking, but instead are individually wrapped and then packaged in clear plastic boxes to allow for unimpeded visual display.

The ter Horsts were awarded a SOFI silver in the confectionery category for their Hana Collection Pates de Fruits, a line that relies upon a collection of Hawaii’s tropical fruits.

Maui Epicure; Hana Collection Pates de Fruit; 5-piece box; 1.5 oz./43 gr; $5.50 S.R.P. MauiFruitJewels

4. Smoked Chocolate Chips - Hot Cakes Molten Chocolate Cakery

Summer Fancy Foods

Autumn Martin is on our American artisan chocolatier-to-watch list.

Over the past ten years, her creativity and professional skills have propelled her unto an upward arc of success and recognition in both pastry arts and chocolate making. In 2002, as a new graduate from culinary arts school, she landed a position as pastry chef at Canlis, a renowned Seattle restaurant. Then in 2005, she decided to devote her talents to chocolate making and became head chocolatier for Seattle-based Theo Chocolate, where she developed the creative and popular Bread and Chocolate and Coconut Curry bars.

Not one to ignore her baking expertise, on the side, she continued to experiment and developed for a charity dinner a chocolate molten cake packaged in a mason jar. Instructions were simple: pop the lid and bake. By 2010, demand for her Take-n-Bake Molten Chocolate Cake in a Mason Jar had grown to the point where she decided to go full-time, open her own business and develop the brand, now called Hot Cakes Molten Chocolate Cakery.

This year, this young Ballard, Seattle-based chocolate company leaped to national prominence when three of its products were awarded SOFIs. Its Smoked Chocolate Chips (gold, chocolate category) are cold-smoked over alder wood and come with the byline “chocolate with a Northwest swagger.” Other winning products were Vegan Salted Caramel Sauce (silver, diet & lifestyle category) and S’Mores Kit (silver, food gift category).

“My dad smoked salmon and steelhead every year when I was growing up,” Martin says in the June 2014 issue of Seattle Magazine. “It brings me back to my childhood days of camping and reminds me of dripping Northwest forests and meat smoking, but it also allows me to harness all of that and fit it into my world of pastry and chocolate.”

Her S’Mores Kit (Food Gift category) includes a bar made from the Smoked Chocolate Chips, house-made marshmallows and house-made graham crackers. Another interesting product is the Rye Whiskey Caramel Sauce that uses Old Overholt Rye, the reputed favorite brand of gunslinger Doc Holliday.

Hot Cakes Molten Chocolate Cakery; Smoked Chocolate Chips; 7 oz./241 g.; $15.00 S.R.P. S’Mores Kit $25.00 S.R.P..Rye Whiskey Caramel Sauce; 8.5 oz./ g.; $18 S.R.P. GetYourHotcakes

5. Oregon Distillers Collection - Moonstruck Chocolate

Summer Fancy Foods

Under Master Chocolatier Julian Rose’s tutelage, Moonstruck continues to invent creative, delicious and playful confections. He was honored in 2009 as one of the Top 10 Chocolatiers in North America by Dessert Professional Magazine. His Oregon Distillers Collection is a good example of craft chocolate makers pairing off with fellow craft distillers (or brewers) to create spirit-infused bonbons. The result is, as the old saying goes, the sum is greater than the parts. Moonstruck’s creative streak is aided by the presence of a large number of Oregon-based distillers. The Oregon Distillers Guild, the first of its kind in the nation, has about 80 members. According to Rose, adding spirits to chocolate “brings out the nuances; it’s a perfect marriage.” 

Released last fall, the Oregon Distillers Collection includes nine truffles, each containing a different infused spirit and a design reflective of this main ingredient. For example, the House of Distillery Krogstad Aquavit Truffle is designed to look like a Viking shield; the Rogue Ale Dead Guy Whiskey Truffle like an eyeball.; the Bull Run Distillery Temperance Trader Straight Bourbon Whiskey Truffle like a brassy Chicago speakeasy doorknob; and House of Spirits Distillery Aviation Gin Truffle like a WWII battleship.  This fall, the chocolate maker will add four new truffles containing Oregon Spirits Distillers Wild Card Absinth, Glaser Distillery Limoncello, New Deal Distillery Ginger Liqueur and Indio Spirits Oregon Marionberry Vodka. 

Moonstruck Chocolate Co. Oregon Distillers Collection; 9-piece collection 4.3 oz./122 g.; $20 S.R.P. MoonstruckChocolate

6. Coconut Ash Banana bar - Vosges Haut Chocolat

Summer Fancy Foods

Leave it to Chocolate Maker/Owner Katrina Markoff to discover a totally unique use for coconut. Her query into why some cheese rind is covered with a black powder, led to her discovery that the powder was coconut shell ash. This ash doesn’t add flavor, but helps to mellow the cheese’s acidity and thereby promote beneficial mold growth.

Additionally, since the days of the pharaohs, the activated carbon made from charcoal was a known for its anti-bacterial properties. Later cultures used charcoal as a general purpose natural detoxing agent.

“Indian nuts” or coconut shells were fashioned into drinking cups supposedly imbued with “miraculous powers” to neutralize poisoned drinks. The New York Metropolitan Museum owns a highly decorated silver gilt coconut made in 16th century in the Low Countries.

Using this miraculous ash and banana for flavor and balance, Markoff created the Coconut Ash Banana bar. The bar is part of her new Super Dark line, a mixture of super foods and dark chocolate. The bar appeared to be black in color with a velvety smooth texture. “It’s a beautiful powder, ingredient and good for your body,” she explains.

Vosges Haut Chocolat; Coconut Ash Banana bar; 3 oz./85 g.; $7.50 S.R.P. VosgesChocolate

7. Toasted Coconut Chips - Dang Foods

Summer Fancy Foods

Since its splash on the food scene as a healthy beverage several years ago, the coconut trend keeps growing. Some of the new coconut products exhibited at the Fancy Food Show include cheese (KoKos: Coconut Milk Cheese), butter (Nikki’s Coconut Butter: Pistachio Macaroon Coconut Butter) and breakfast diet snacks (Susie’s Smart Cookie: Banana Coconut Breakfast Cookie).

So to in confectionery, where four of the SOFI award-winning products involved coconuts: Dang Foods’ Dang Toasted Coconut Chips (SOFI Gold in the snack food category); Simple Squares’ Organic Snack Bars – Coconut (SOFI Silver in the snack food category); Hail Merry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Macaroons (SOFI Silver in the snack food category); and JJ’s Sweets Cocomels’ Sea Salt Cocomels (SOFI Silver in the confection category).

In a complicated world, sometimes a simple approach can be overlooked. But not by Dang Foods. Its Toasted Coconut Chips contain only three ingredients: toasted coconut, sugar and salt. Yet its sweet flavor, crunchy texture and strong aroma earned it a SOFI gold in the snack category.

This two-year-old, Berkeley-based company had a humble beginning in founder Vincent Kitirattragarn’s mother’s kitchen. The Toasted Coconut Chips are a riff on a northern Thai food favorite, miang kum or Thai lettuce wraps. Kitirattragarn’s mother, named Dang, would add toasted coconut shreds as an ingredient.

“The smell and taste was great and I didn’t see anything like it on the market.” Kitirattragarn recommends using it sprinkled on salads, ice cream, eating it out of the bag as a snack or trail mix.

Dang’s packaging is very elegant and sustainable, as one would expect given the founder’s academic background: two engineering degrees from Cornell and five years in sustainability research.

Dang Foods; Toasted Coconut Chips; 1.43 oz/40 g.; $3.00 S.R.P. DangFoods

8. Sweet for S’Mores Kit – Madyson’s Marshmallows

Summer Fancy Foods

“All from the brains of a little child,” is how father and founder Breeze Wetzel  of Madyson’s Marshmallows recalls the day five years ago when his three-year old daughter, Madyson, asked her parents how to make marshmallows. That inquiry prompted her parents to investigate recipes on the internet, and their ingenuity eventually spawned a company.

The Sumner, Wash.-based company first made hand-crafted marshmallows, which received glowing reviews. The company took little Madyson’s idea further and, at the Show, launched the Sweet for S’Mores Kit.  The kit is available in two flavors: marshmallows filled with chocolate and peanut butter chips and Moravian chocolate cookies or marshmallows filled with chocolate chips and classic Moravian sugar cookies. Both kits also contain skewers and matches. Everything you need for doing your S’Mores if you are out camping. Or, as the company’s marketing literature urges, “Head out back and light a fire ... indulge to your heart’s desire.”

Several other gourmet s’mores kits also were exhibited at the Show, including Hot Cakes Molten Chocolate Cakery’s S’Mores kit (SOFI Silver in the food gift category) and Chuao’s Oh My S’Mores! Bar.  Madyson’s s’mores kit is nice because the company uses another branded ingredient, Old Salem’s Moravian Sugar Cookies, allowing for cross-merchandizing and it’s packed in a convenient and attractive kit.

Madyson’s Marshmallows; Sweet for S’Mores Kit; makes 10 S’Mores; 8.5 oz./241 g.; $19.99 - $24.99 S.R.P. MadysonsMarshmallows

9. Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Macaroons - Hail Merry

Summer Fancy Foods

Confession #1: “We’re a ‘cottage brand’.”

That’s how founder Susan O’Brien describes her business philosophy, referring to the fact that Hail Merry makes all its own products; unlike a growing trait in the confectionery and food industry where manufacturing is outsourced.

Confession #2: “We are the best confection in America that no one knows about. But we are hoping that soon, our products will be in everyone’s refrigerator.”

Her hope just might be more than a just prayer, for Hail Merry is hitting all the current foodie touch points. All of the company’s products, macaroons and tarts, are gluten-free, vegan, non-GMO and raw; all attributes that have huge consumer followings, especially among millenials.

And all the packages carry “made with coconut oil” labels. Why cold-pressed virgin coconut oil? Chief Product officer Alison Brushaber explains that “coconut oil is vegan, and has many benefits. We use it instead of heavy cream. It really makes our macaroons & Miracle Tarts taste luscious and delicious.”

CEO Sarah Palisi Chapin adds some history: in the early days of the raw food movement, raw foodists made a lot of macaroons, because you could dehydrate — rather than bake — the ingredients. And in the end they retained their moisture. “So, macaroons became a very popular on-the-go snack.”

Confession #3: Caveat merchandiser; this company has legs.

It’s racked up prestigious national awards: the Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Macaroon won a 2014 SOFI silver in the snack food category; the Chocolate Miracle Tart a National Restaurant Association’s 2013 FABI Award; the Choco Macaroon a 2013 Paleo Best award; and the Chocolate Raw Almond Butter Miracle Tart a 2011 Best of Show award at National Products West.

The entire company was awarded the Ernst & Young 2014 Entrepreneur of the Year award, Southwest region, in the consumer goods category. Its products are distributed first class on Virgin America Airlines and used for turn-down service at Omni, Fairmount and other hotels.

What’s in a name?

“Hail Merry is a symbol of purity and the Hail Merry Queen is an artful and cheerful expression of the power that the female holds within to nurture and express love,” explains O’Brien. Amen to that.

Hail Merry; Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Macaroons; 3.5 oz./100 g. $3.99 S.R.P. HailMerry

10. Nutrition Bars - Mediterra

Summer Fancy Foods

The Mediterranean diet, the darling of dieticians for the past decade, has arrived in snackville. Telemaque Lavidas is on a quest to bring the Mediterranean life style to American snack food. Or, as the company’s marketing literature states, “ancient wisdom meets modern convenience.” Lavidas’s background includes 12 years in the healthcare industry.

Inspired by his family’s traditional, healthy cooking, the Greek native has created a line of nutritional bars filled with ingredients based upon the Mediterranean diet: sundried fruits, whole grains, leafy greens, Greek honey; even black olives and tomatoes. The pistachios come from the Greek island of Aegina, an island known for its flavorful pistachios. The company debuted at the Fancy Food Show.

Mediterra has introduced three sets of nutrition bars, each to fit a different snacking occasion. There are two Sesame Energy Bars with Pistachio & Honey and Orange & Honey; two Yogurt & Oat Bars with Apricot & Pistachio and Cherry & Pistachio; and two Savory Bars with Sundried Tomato & Basil and Olive & Walnuts.

All the bars have a low sugar content, 5 to 6 grams of protein, 2 to 6 grams of fiber, very clean labels, and low calories. The packaging is clean and beckoning.

Mediterra Inc.; Nutrition Bar line; 1.4 oz./40 g.; $1.99 S.R.P.  MediterraNutrition


A packaging postscript

For outstanding confectionery packaging design, four examples stand out. Moonstruck Chocolate’s Chocolate Bark packaging, released at the Show, has a top clear cellophane panel to display the beautifully executed bark and a label that looks like an old fashion hand-written jam jar label. The second example is Olive & Sinclair’s retro-style packaging for its Bourbon Nib Brittle. The third is Dang Food’s Toasted Coconut Chips, with its clean graphics and eco-label, Kitirattragarn’s background in sustainability research. And the fourth is Mediterra Nutrition’s snack bar line.