NAPLES — Sanibel Island executive chef John Wolff enjoys serving Hudson Valley foie gras presented over Grand Marnier and vanilla rum, finished with a sweet port wine reduction.
The dish, which he produced last week at the Thistle Lodge Beach Front Restaurant on Sanibel, is always in high demand, and Wolff is quite picky about where his products are coming from.
"Our clientele really demands the finest products," Wolff said. "So we don't mess around when it comes to quality."
Wolff doesn't need to look far for gourmet food. He orders most of his high-end products from Innovative Food Holdings Inc. in Collier County, which locates the specialty items for him.
Innovative Food Holdings, its office just east of Collier Boulevard and south of Interstate 75 and southwest of where Alligator Alley begins, markets and sells nearly 6,000 gourmet food products to chefs across the country. Through a partnership with U.S. Foods Group in Rosemont, Ill., its customers include restaurants, hotels, country clubs, casinos and catering houses.
"We're lucky enough to have an outsource for our items, which also happens to be one of the largest food service providers (U.S. Foods) in the country," said Innovative Food Holdings' President Justin Wiernasz. "We're more of a one-stop shop."
Whether a chef is seeking truffle salts from Italy, fresh soft shell crab from Chesapeake Bay, or a sharp Gouda cheese from Holland, Innovative Food prides itself on sourcing specialty items and making sure those products arrive fresh, Wiernasz said.
"The main advantage for Food Innovations is that chefs can get everything they need under one roof," Wolff said. "Otherwise, you would have to go to specific purveyors for all those different things."
With hundreds of online competitors vying for an increased share of the nation's $75 billion specialty foods market, the company at 3845 Beck Blvd., Suite 805 Naples, is aggressively expanding its product lines and moving into new markets.
Innovative Food Holdings CEO Sam Klepfish said the strategy is paying off. The company generated $3.3 million in net revenues in the first quarter of 2012, which was up 33 percent from last year at this time.
"The market is constantly evolving and one thing that we do really well is stay ahead of the trends and launch new products," Klepfish said.
The two fastest-growing segments for the company also happen to be two of the hottest trends across the country: gluten-free and diet-specific products as well as items that fall in the "molecular gastronomy" category, which are additives that change the molecular structure of foods. For example, a liquid food can be changed to solid without changing the flavor.
It's all part of what Wiernasz and Klepfish call the "gourmetization of America." Over the last 15 years, the gourmet foods market in America has accelerated rapidly, in part because of health and nutrition concerns and globalization of taste. The market also has been expedited by television shows with celebrity chefs and networks such as the Food Channel.
"As much as it pains me to say it, the Food Network drove an education process in the American culture," Wiernasz said.
"When Iron Chef America started three or four years ago, whatever show aired on Sunday night, we would have calls for those products on Monday morning. We knew the show was driving interest because some of the people didn't know what the products were, and all of a sudden people wanted to try them at home or at their restaurant."
Last year, Innovative Food Holdings shipped 99,000 packages, but they don't allow suppliers to ship the products. Instead, the company contracts with FedEx and United Parcel Service to pick up and deliver the food to customers straight from the source, a method that allows them control of the distribution process.
The company now sells and markets its products through an online catalog, through a retail partnership with Amazon.com, and chefs can order products through a U.S. Foods representative, or call the company directly where trained chef advisers help customers with orders.
As part of the push to grab a larger share of the gourmet foods market, Innovative Food Holdings in May closed a deal to acquire Artisan Specialty Foods Inc. in Chicago. Artisan Specialty is a leading supplier of niche gourmet food products in the Chicago area. In 2011, the company had estimated unaudited sales of more than $5.6 million, including sales made to Innovative Food and its affiliates.
"We truly touch all the disciplines within the food service realm now," Wiernasz said. "We're in distribution, marketing, logistics and now warehousing with the acquisition in Chicago. That has always been our goal."