Extra virgin olive oil, dried fruit, chocolate, anything with honey and all sorts of low-fat yogurts are dominating the massive three-day trade show.
Because it’s relatively easy to launch a food business, hundreds of small businesses lined aisles showing off new products. In fact, more than 15,000 people from about 60 countries were in attendance. Despite the economic downturn, sales of specialty foods grew 19.1 percent from 2009 to 2011—hitting $75.1 billion worldwide, according to the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade (NASFT), which sponsors the show.
Among the most bizarre selections (and the most challenging to actually sample) was a haggis and black pepper potato chip from Mackie’s, a small Scottish company that grows potatoes on 250 acres. (Haggis is a traditional Scottish savory pudding containing sheep's heart, liver and lungs, minced with oatmeal, suet, spices and salt.) And one of the more interesting packaged food entries was a company called Back to the Roots, which sells a mushroom-growing kit, in which you grow pearl oyster mushrooms on recycled coffee grounds in a cardboard box. The company, based in Oakland, Calif., was started by Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora—two UC Berkeley graduates who scrapped their plans for Wall Street jobs to start the business, thanks to a $5,000 grant from the school.
“We started growing mushrooms in a frat house and then sold them to local restaurants,” said Arora. From those humble beginnings, the $20 kits are now sold at Whole Foods and Home Depot. The company also won a Gold award at the show for food gifts.
Bacon is so last year. Just when Burger King finally adds a bacon-topped ice cream sundae to its menu, the international fancy-food trade moves on to embrace healthier alternatives. In terms of must-have ingredients, honey this year got a lot of buzz (no pun intended). For example, Melfor honey-and herb-infused vinegar from France was attracting attention. J. Douglas McGinnis, vice president of Tropical Blossom Honey Co. in Edgewater, Fla., said that honey is back in the public eye.
“Honey used to be the poor cousin of fancy jams and jellies, but not anymore,” McGinnis said.
Denver-based Hammond’s Candies launched its new Bee Pollen Chocolate Bar, which combines the alleged benefits of bee pollen with organic dark chocolate. The bar follows the introduction of the company’s Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich chocolate bar, which recently won a snack industry award as the most innovative new product of the year.
Dori Ross, a former marketing executive for Gillette, said she invested about $50,000 of her own money to launch an upscale line of maple products under the Tonewood brand. She works with two local maple growers who tend 18,000 trees around Waitsfield, Vt. In addition to syrup sold in a tall, elegant bottle for $22, she sells maple sugar cubes ($17) for grating over coffee or desserts and maple flakes.
"I love maple and feel it’s been done a disservice,” Ross said. “It doesn’t just need to be poured over pancakes.”
Ross attributes her success to elegant design and branding, since most maple syrup is sold in beige plastic jugs. In fact, the Boston design firm Protobrand was so excited about her idea that it did the first phase of designs for free.
Tech startups aren't the only ones who can tap into alternate sources of funding. Olive-oil taster and salesman Bill Sanders raised about $23,000 on Kickstarter to launch First Fresh Extra Virgin Olive Oil just 10 weeks ago. Based in Marysville, Ky., Sanders says that instead of sourcing his olives from overseas, he buys them from California growers. But that wasn't the biggest challenge.
“Finding the oil was the easy part, selling it is tough,” Sanders said. He adds, however, that he has been encouraged by the positive response.
Check out Jane's post tomorrow where industry experts from the Fancy Food Show share their secrets of success for food entrepreneurs.
Photo credit: Jane Applegate