Supporting An Environment Of Invention

Chris Crocker
(Editor's note: We'll periodically revisit posts to The SFA Blog that continue to be relevant and provide value to members. In this week's revisited post, originally published 9/22/2016, Chris Crocker, Association SVP, Content and Marketing explores the challenge faced by many specialty food companies of fostering innovation and invention while staying profitable.)

“What’s new?” is the mantra of the specialty food industry. Whether unique flavors and ingredients, international products entering the U.S. market for the first time, or freshly invented food concepts, the trade is always looking for items to satisfy consumer need for authentic new food experiences. 

Producers push out an impressive range of new foods and beverages every year, and much of the originality comes from startups entering the business. Often creative savants and business naifs, these new producers can be fueled more by passion and commitment than by planning or capital. They’re not yet tied to a category or production method, and they’re often able to more freely bring new ideas to bear without the due diligence more established businesses employ in releasing a second, third, or 50th product. That’s not to say the pressure to innovate isn’t also felt by more mature companies, who need the sizzle of new offerings to grow and to keep trade customers engaged. Some have even built wildly effective business models on it, bringing out dozens of new products annually. 

The rollouts that result from this “need for new” run the gamut from products that are truly inspired to those that are loopy or poorly differentiated. Many make it into distribution and thrive and others falter when they hit roadblocks. 

Through it all—while pundits gush over a mind-blowing product introduction, cynics disparage another ‘’me-too” entry, and naysayers declare there are too many new products coming out and most of them are destined to fail—we need to remember just how easy it is to talk about innovation, and how hard it is to be both innovative and successful. 

Across all industries, only one in five entrepreneurs survive the first 18 months of business. It’s not likely the specialty food trade is that far out of the norm, although I suspect we have a comparatively larger percentage of entrants. There is no question that the turnover rate is higher than we’d like, whether among newcomers or running businesses. 

So are we a churning industry that feeds on false hopes or are we a constantly regenerating industry of invention? Perhaps both. I am certain of this: new products are the lifeblood of our trade and without them challenging the status quo, this dynamic industry would instead be a small assortment of mid-market brands, playing in the shadows of food mega-businesses.
Rather than accepting that many new companies and new products will fail, we can work to improve their chances. This will remain an exciting, thriving industry if we foster innovation, nurture business expertise, and smooth the path of products to market, creating an environment where businesses can develop and the consumer can experience our best. 

Weigh in with your own opinions in the Q&A Forum.
Posted by Andrea Meyer on Sep 7, 2017 4:30 PM America/New_York