Coconut, coffee, and cashews were some of the cool-kid flavors and ingredients among the 2017 sofi sweets and snacks winners. Shredded coconut appeared in one-third of the award winning products, prevalent in all four awards in the sweet snack category,  while coconut milk was the key flavor ingredient for the one winning confection in the vegan product category.

 Coffee exhibited its versatility as a flavor by appearing in winning products in three of the seven award categories: chocolate candy, milk/white chocolate, and sweet snack categories. Cashew inclusions showed up in half of the sweet snacks category winners and in one winning dark chocolate bar.

What that means for today’s state of the premium sweets and snacks industry is hard to tell, other than American consumers have gone nutty and java jittery.

Coconut has been trending for the past several years, while coffee flavor had the second highest growth rate (40 percent) in chocolate confectionery new product releases last year, reports flavor house FONA. The increasing popularity of cashews might be an extension of the general demand for healthy ingredients with a more exotic pedigree.

With more than 180,000 specialty food and beverages from 2,600 exhibitors on display, the 2017 Summer Fancy Food Show organized by the Specialty Food Association (SFA) continues to reign as the largest show in North America devoted to this industry. Held between June 25 and 27 at the Javits Center in New York City, the show provided the opportunity to discover emerging brands and celebrate the winners for the association’s sofi awards, the food equivalent of the Oscars.

“The 2017 sofi award winners are the perfect representation of everything that the specialty food industry stands for,” explains SFA President Phil Kafarakis. “They represent the devotion to excellence, great tastes and innovation that fuels our industry.”

This year, the awards were rejiggered to provide more product specificity. Among the new sweets and snacks categories were dark chocolate and milk/white chocolate. A second change expanded the number of awards per category from two (gold and finalist) to four (gold, silver, bronze, and new product). And third, a special overall award for Product of the Year was added. I am pleased to report that a confectionery product, Anastasia’s Coconut Cashew Crunch, clinched this award.

The specialty food segment continues to experience robust growth. Last year, the segment’s sales hit $127 billion and achieved 15 percent growth, versus 2.3 percent for total food industry sales, according to the State of the Specialty Food Industry 2017 Report, authored by the SFA and Mintel. 

“With increasingly informed consumers emphasizing quality in their food choices, products that accentuate good health, freshness and better-for-you alternatives to traditional offerings are driving growth,” notes Denise Purcell, editor of Specialty Food Magazine in a recent editorial.

The report estimated that the chocolate and other confectionery category racked up $2.195 billion in sales and has a 3.7 percent market penetration rate. More importantly, between 2010/2016 its market share had expanded 10 percent.

For this report on sofi winners, I profiled one product per category to give readers a sense of the innovation and excellence these sweets and snacks represent.


Product of the Year & Sweet Snack category gold

Anastasia Confections – riding the coconut trend

Coconut Cashew Crunch Dark Chocolate Drizzle

This award-winning product marks a significant milestone for the company. Founded in the early 1980s, Anastasia made its first commercial mark by selling to tourists its Florida-themed confections, one of which was the Coconut Patty. Sales ramped up when the company made private-label confections for some of Florida’s mega theme parks. By 2011, its success was captured as a cover story in our November issue. Recently, the company became a member of BBX Sweet Holdings.

The Coconut Cashew Crunch line includes three products, Original Recipe, Jamaican Rum, and the sofi winner, Chocolate Drizzle. They represent “tropical twists on a classic brittle,” notes the line’s marketing material.

“We created a truly addictive confection for today’s coconut-obsessed consumers,” says Phil DeWester, v.p. of marketing.

The product contains shredded coconut, cashews, butter, brown sugar, and sea salt. It also received a Sweet Snack category gold award as well as the Most Innovative New Product Award in the Gourmet/Premium Category at the NCA’s Sweets & Snacks Expo.

5.75 oz./163 g.; $5.99


Chocolate Candy category, bronze

Vosges Haut Chocolate – cold brew chocolate coffee bites

Wild Ophelia’s Cold Brew Chocolate Coffee Bites

“I don’t drink coffee,” admits Vosges Haut-Chocolat and Wild Ophelia founder Katrina Markoff. “But when I tasted a cup made with the nitro cold brew process, I felt like I was drinking the Guinness version of coffee and I fell in love with it.” She discovered that this new coffee processing method yielded a brew that was smoother, richer and deeper in flavor and that was now ideal for pairing with chocolate. The end result was Wild Ophelia’s Chocolate Cold Brew Coffee Bites, featuring cold brew coffee ganache centers using various flavors: Mexican Vanilla 70% dark, Jet Black 70% dark, and Sea Salt Caramel Latte 41% milk (the sofi winner).

The original product design called for chocolate cup-shaped shells. But during consumer trials, Markoff said that the shapes reminded folks of peanut butter cups; hence, the redesign to square block shells. Each package contains four “bites,” a serving that equals about one coffee cup amount of caffeine. Vosges Haut-Chocolat will be announcing a partnership with a cold brew coffee brand sometime in the future.

1.39 oz./39 g.; $2.49


Chocolate - Dark category, bronze

Lake Champlain Chocolates – following the honey trail

It’s Hot, Honey

This 57% organic dark bar has a caramel center, sweetened with Vermont-sourced honey and infused with a touch of habanero. Honey has been a trending flavor and, in fact, flavor house Fermenich chose honey as its 2015 flavor of the year. “We felt that infusing the caramel with habanero was a timely innovation to modernize a classic with broad appeal,” suggests Sales and Marketing Director Allyson Myers.

Lake Champlain also bagged both sofi bronze and best new product awards in the Chocolate – milk and white category for its limited edition Moka Fleck 42% dark milk bar with fine-ground Dominican coffee and crunchy roasted cocoa nibs. “Everyone loves a coffee chocolate beverage; so why not create a snackable version of these favorite drinks?”

3.25 oz./92 g.; $4.95


Chocolate - Milk & White category, silver

Vivra Chocolate – culinary flavors with eye appeal

Curry Cashew

Attractive packaging helps to hook the first time buyer. Thereafter, it’s the product’s taste that brings repeat sales. Vivra Chocolate wins on both accounts.

With a 30-year career in the fashion industry, founder Bob Leavitt uses his “fashion eye” to design his packaging graphics and colors that catch the consumer’s eye. And similar to creating matching ensembles, he creates chocolate collections. For example, Vivra’s seaside collection includes a bar, caramels, and seashells, all designed with a nautical theme.

Then, he combines this skill with a family background in chocolate making to craft delicious products. His artisan line of bars focuses on culinary flavors, such as the Siena Fig bar (65% dark chocolate, figs, salted Sicilian pistachios and pignoli) and English Garden bar (65% dark chocolate, sweet basil, thyme, Meyer lemon and violets). The sofi award-winning Curry Cashew bar contains milk chocolate, spices, turmeric and cashews.

3.0 oz./85 g.; $6.00


Confection category, new product

Bissinger’s Handcrafted Chocolatier – gummies for adults

Strawberry Mango Gummy Pandas

“Hit them where they ain’t,” is advice from baseball legend Mickey Mantle. For Bissinger’s Chief Chocolatier Dave Owens, this translated to a play on upscale gummies.

About ten years ago, the craft chocolatier identified a market opportunity for more culinary-driven gummies that satisfied adult tastes for fine confections made with interesting, superfruit flavor combinations. It was a home run from the start. The line now features seven products that have garnered four sofis, with the latest won by the Strawberry Mango Gummy. All of Bissinger’s gummy pandas are gluten-free, contain no high fructose corn syrup and are made with organic cane sugar. How to enjoy them? Owens recommends them when you are “craving a light, fruity and a guilt-free picnic treat, road-trip snacking and on-the-go indulgence. They are also popular for packing in lunch boxes for kids of all ages.”

3.0 oz./85 g.; $4.00


Sweet Snack category, silver

Honey Mama’s – healthy and indulgent grab-and-go refrigerated chocolate snack

Nibs & Coffee Cacao Nectar Bar

Honey Mama’s was started as a way for Christy Goldsby to share her passion for healthy living and love of the natural world. She wanted to create a treat that exuded vitality and decadence. Something that you’d as likely take to a formal dinner party as enjoy on a hike. Sweetened with raw honey, her treats are full of bold, deep flavors and decadent textures. Made with nutrient rich whole foods, all of the ingredients she uses are chosen for texture, purity and quality of flavor as well as for ease of digestion and nutrition.

Today, Honey Mamas sells seven bars, all with ingredients free from gluten, soy, dairy and grain. The sofi award-winning Nibs & Coffee Cacao Nectar Bar contains shredded coconut, dark cocoa, single-estate coffee, roasted cocoa nibs and raw local honey.

Honey Mamas bars are merchandised in the refrigerated dessert or grab-and-go section, because they contain unrefined coconut oil, which has a lower melting point than cocoa butter. This relatively new category also contains Perfect Bar snack bars, Hail Merry chocolate cups and Nelly’s Organics candy bars, all products popular with Millennials. “My bars belong to a food zone somewhere between protein/raw food bars and sweet gluten-free, vegan desserts,” explains Goldsby.

And the origin of the name?

“Growing up, I spent a lot of time with my family in the South and the name Honey Mama’s is reminiscent of that tongue-and-cheek way of relating to the world. Playful, fun and nurturing.”

2.5 oz./70.8 g.;$5.99


Vegan Product category, new product

Cocomels by JJ’s Sweets – bite-sized vegan chocolate and coconut treats

Sea Salt Chocolate Covered Cocomel Bites

According to founder/CEO JJ Rademaeker, his inspiration for creating a confectionery company was founded on a vision. Back in 2009, when he was winding down his role in a startup carbon offset company, he dreamt about making delicious and natural candy. He liked caramels, but was dairy intolerant, so he substituted coconut milk for cow’s milk. For his first year of operations, he sold his products at the Boulder, Colo. farmers market.

Then demand rocketed, borne in part due to their great taste and to a burgeoning market for vegan products. In 2016, new product launches of food and drink with the attribute “vegan” accounted for 4.6 percent of total global launches, up from 1.2 percent in 2011, according to Innova Market Insights.

At the show JJ’s Sweets launched the Cocomel Bites product line: bite-sized, chocolate-covered coconut milk caramels sold in a multi-serve, resealable standup pouches. With these product attributes, Rademaeker hopes that his Bites become the vegan snacking chocolate equivalent of BarkTHINS. The line contains two products, Vanilla and Sea Salt, the latter capturing a sofi in the new vegan product category. The products attributes hit all the points that are on trend: dairy-free, gluten-free, organic, and non-GMO. This is the company’s third sofi award.

3.5 oz./100 g.; $4.99 


2017 sofi sweets & snacks winners

Best New Product

Las Olas Confections and Snacks, Anastasia Coconut Cashew Crunch


Chocolate Candy

Gold - Neo Cocoa, Black Sesame Seed Brittle

Silver – Big Picture Farm, Chocolate Covered Caramels

Bronze – Vosges Haut-Chocolat, Wild Ophelia Cold Brew Chocolate Coffee Bites Sea Salt Caramel Latte

New productFran’s Chocolates, Almond Gold Bar


Chocolate – Dark

Gold – Dick Taylor Craft Chocolate, 72% Madagascar Sambriano

Silver – Letterpress Chocolate, Maya Mountain Cacao Belize 70% Dark Chocolate

Bronze – Lake Champlain Chocolates, It’s Hot, Honey

New product – Chuao Chocolatier, Cheeky, Cheeky Churro


Chocolate – Milk & White

Gold – Sweet Shop USA, White Chocolate Goji Berry Crunch Bar

Silver – Vivra Chocolate, Curry Cashew

Bronze – Lake Champlain Chocolates, Moka Fleck

New product – Lake Champlain Chocolates, Moka Fleck



Gold – Gustiamo, Caffésicilia: Soft Pistachio Nougat

Silver – Mount Mansfield Maple Products, Organic Pure Vermont Maple Candy

Bronze – Beaujolais Panforte, Hazelnut Panforte

New product – Bissinger’s Handcrafted Chocolatier, Strawberry Mango Gummy Pandas


Sweet Snack

Gold – Las Olas Confections and Snacks, Anastasia Coconut Cashew Crunch

Silver – Honey Mama’s, Nibs & Coffee Cacao-Nectar Bar

Bronze – Dang Foods – Coconut Crunch Sticky-Rice Chips

New product – Creative Snacks, Organic Coconut with Cranberries, Cashews & Almonds, Chia Seeds


Vegan Product

New product – Cocomels by JJ’s Sweets, Sea Salt Chocolate Covered Cocomel Bites