June 29, 2009 / 9:18 PM / 8 years ago

Consumers indulge to lift spirits, food makers say

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Specialty-food makers showcasing wares this week say anxious consumers are consoling themselves, and buoying the gourmet industry, by seeking solace in tasty treats from chocolate sushi to lavender-laced cheese.

Fancy-food makers, more than 2,000 of which were exhibiting at the annual trade show in New York, say consumers may not buy big-ticket items amid the recession but they will allow themselves smaller indulgences.

"People may not be buying flat-screen TVs, but they will buy lobster mac and cheese," said Cal Hancock, whose Maine-based Hancock Gourmet Lobster Co. sells the frozen delicacy. "It's the ultimate comfort food."

Paul Ioanidis, of Jer's Handmade Chocolates in Solana Beach, California, said sales are strong. "People will indulge a little bit to feel better, and premium chocolates are a pretty inexpensive way to feel good," he said.

The National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, which sponsors the trade show, said the industry had $60 billion in U.S. sales in 2008. Fifty-eight percent of its manufacturers reported a drop in sales last year, due to economic pressures.

The research also found that a downturn in restaurant sales has helped specialty foods as consumers cook more at home. That move away from restaurant dining has been evident in sales trends, several vendors said.

'YOU USE MORE SEASONING'

"If you're going to save money, you're not going to eat in restaurants so much. If you're cooking at home, you use more seasoning," said Joe Walker of Slap Ya Mama Cajun Seasoning, based in Ville Platte, Louisiana.

Hoping to woo the more selective, less extravagant consumer with smaller, less expensive products, Chuao Chocolatier of Carlsbad, California, makes versions of its candy, such as dark chocolate with chipotle, that retail for 99 cents.

"This is our answer to the economy," said Brooke Feldman, communications manager. "It's chocolate for the people."

Some retailers opted for a twist on traditional favorites.

Rogue Creamery of Central Point, Oregon, offered cheddar cheese flavored with lavender, Das Foods of Highwood, Illinois, had lollipops flavored with maple and bacon, and Romanicos Chocolate of Miami offered candies shaped like sushi.

Others are backing basics, such as Woeber Mustard Manufacturing Co of Springfield, Ohio, where horseradish sauce remains the strongest seller.

"We've seen high-end products go down, and more basic products increase," said Christopher Woeber, project manager at the 104-year-old family business.

Editing by Will Dunham

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