It is not a good time to be a small, middle-of-the-road food retailer, says Trip Straub, president and CEO of Straub’s Markets, a four-unit chain based in St. Louis.

Offering a carefully curated selection of specialty foods has long helped Straub’s differentiate itself in the market, he says, which may be key to how the family-owned company has survived to celebrate its 116th year in business.

Straub is scheduled to participate in a session called “Buyer Roundtable: Selling Specialty” at the 2017 Summer Fancy Food Show in New York on Monday, June 26. He recently spoke with Specialty Food News about trends in specialty foods, working with specialty food purveyors and his company’s approach to the Fancy Food Show.

What trends do you see happening in the specialty category, and how are they affecting your stores?

There has been a proliferation of specialty foods in all kinds of retailers, from Costco to the regular grocery stores in town, and it makes our job even harder to stay ahead of the trends. That’s why we love dealing with small, mom-and-pop manufacturers, because they couldn’t supply 100 stores, even if they wanted to. Some of them get bigger and eventually want to [supply larger chains], but then they may not be special to us any more. We may still keep them if they sell well, but if there’s not a real point of difference, we will discontinue those and make room for someone else.

How do you approach the Fancy Food Show as a buyer?

We always have two purposes. One is to go deeper, face-to-face, with the relationships we already have with the vendors. The second purpose is — since we know what categories are doing well overall in specialty, and we also know what’s doing well in our world — we look for items in those categories that are really doing great. We have to be selective. In some categories, such as jams and preserves, there are phenomenal producers from all over the country, but we can’t carry eight or nine varieties of seedless red raspberry preserves. We don’t have a specific list of products we are looking for. We are looking for anything, as long as we can turn it, which is good for them and good for us.

What are the attributes that are important? Do clean labels and short ingredient lists matter?

Certainly, having ingredients you can pronounce is important, but I think taste is our number-one factor. If it has a clean label, all the better. We really focus on setting new items up to succeed — if it is a raspberry jam, and the first ingredient is sugar, maybe we will not bring that one in. But if there’s another that is equally good-tasting, and the first ingredient is actually raspberries, maybe we will bring that one in. But it has to be good-tasting.

As we walk the Fancy Food Show, we are looking for those smaller producers, making quality stuff, in a category that we can sell really well here in St. Louis, and it may be a couple of years before the big guys actually get them in their stores.

How important is local sourcing for specialty foods at Straub’s?

We love to mentor the younger, local small folks — someone who has their grandma’s recipe for a salsa, for example — we give a lot of shelf space to folks like that. Some of them will succeed and sell well, and I might put them in touch with the Specialty Food Association if they want to grow. We are always open to helping them with things like packaging. We have category specialists who really enjoy doing that — helping somebody get off the ground. That’s important to us at Straub’s.