At the Fancy Food Show in Washington D.C., you see a lot of people whose dreams came true. But the road to D.C. is also paved with ventures that didn't make it. Breaking into the $71.5 billion worldwide fancy food market is appealing because seemingly all you need is a great recipe and a dream. Not true, according to several industry veterans we interviewed at the show, which attracted about 15,000 attendees who came to sample meats and cheeses, cookies, crackers, sauces, olive oil, dips, chips, beverages and candies.
So how can you ensure success in your food enterprise? Here's some advice from owner and experts at the show.
Follow the rules. Veteran food importer Jeff Binstein (senior director at European Imports founded by his father in 1978) said that the biggest challenge is dealing with everything related to food safety. And he should know. His company has imported a variety of upscale meats and cheeses from Italy and elsewhere, including a delicious prosciutto cured for 600 days.
"The U.S. (food safety) regulations are tough and could put a small company out of business,” he said.
Invest in packaging and branding. Binstein said that “It’s challenging and very expensive to market a product right.” For example, Terra Delyssa, a Tunisian olive oil company that has been selling in the U.S. for more than 20 years, recently spent seven figures re-branding and re-designing their label and putting it on a sleek new bottle. But the investment has paid off.
“The reaction has been unbelievable,” said Stephen Wise, vice president of export sales for the company.
And Jennifer Giebel, a national account executive for Aspecialtybox.com, a Tulsa-based packaging company said that creative packaging can definitely set a start-up apart.
“The industry won’t take you seriously if you don’t do it right,” she said. “People are emotional about food and how the food is packaged.”
Giebel added that most packaging companies don’t just sell boxes, but serve as consultants, offering insights and advice about what works and what doesn’t to new companies.
Choose your colors wisely. Food packaging follows fashion trends, according to a rep for ribbon-maker Lawrence Schiff Silk Mills. She said that Pantone, the company that creates professional color palettes for designers, picks the top trendy colors. Smart packagers follow those trends. This summer bright orange and coral are hot. Look for teal, brown and deeper orange for fall.
Pick a recession-proof food. Jim Lampman, founder of Lake Champlain Chocolates based in Burlington, Vt., got into the premium chocolate business in 1983 after owning two restaurants and selling fish wholesale.
“I could see the future of chocolate after Godiva led the way,” said Lampman. “They were the first to bring European flavors and tastes to America.”
Because chocolate is an affordable luxury, he said the company has remained profitable during several economic slumps including the recession of 2008, currently bringing in some $20 million per year.
Make your product consistent. For 114 years, Walkers Shortbread has stuck to a simple strategy: making shortbread the same way since 1898 when Joseph Walker opened a bakery shop in the tiny village of Aberlour-on-Spey in the Highlands of Scotland. The company, known for its red plaid packaging, has grown from 16 employees to 1,600, but is still based in the same village.
“We are absolutely ruthless about product quality,” said Jim Walker, head of marketing. “Success in the food business comes down to integrity in everything you do. Consumer know when they buy Walkers, they buy it because it always tastes the same.”
Seek help with sales and distribution. Small food companies don’t have to go it alone. For example, Buyers’ Best Friend represents about 1,700 small companies producing about 100,000 products, helping them connect with buyers and reviewers, according to Conor Lee, director of marketing and strategy. BBF brought about 60 members to the Fancy Food Show.
Companies pay a membership fee of $1,500 a year, but if they don’t sell $1,200 worth of products, the company refunds the fee. The San Francisco-based company was co-founded by Adam Zah, a former engineer for Google and Joyce Kuan, a food broker.
The 2012 Fancy Food Show ends today. To see a list of exhibitors at the show, click here.