Buyers from around the world sampled new types of mandarin oranges, Brie cheese and flavored vodka at the third annual Fresno Food Expo on Thursday.
About 100 food producers from the eight-county region hoped their products would catch the attention of the more than 500 buyers who signed up for the show at the Fresno Convention Center.
The show was created by the city of Fresno as a way for local companies to grow their business, especially export business. It also helps develop a greater awareness among consumers about the breadth of food products made in the Valley.
More than 1,000 people attended the public portion of the event Thursday evening where they got to sample the many foods and drinks promoted during the expo.
During the business portion of the event, representatives from grocery stores -- including Trader Joe's for the first time -- restaurants and international food distribution companies roamed the show. Some exhibitors were particularly optimistic about meeting with the international buyers, many of whom attended the show for the first time.
First-time exhibitor Pablo Orozco of Fresno-based Raizana Teas was surprised at the interest from international buyers in the company's line of seven teas that promote health and wellness.
"This is our first food show ever," he said. "And we already have interest from four Latin American buyers."
Orozco said the Latin American and Asian buyers showed strong interest in the teas for relaxation, to aid in digestion and to enhance mood. The teas are currently sold at Cafe Corazon in the Tower District and through the company website, raizana.com.
"For a small company like ours, this has been a really good experience," Orozco said.
The Food Expo partnered with the Center for International Trade Development in Fresno to bring 25 buyers from Canada, Mexico and Pacific Rim countries such as China. Expo organizers also arranged tours to several farms, including Batth family farms in Caruthers, as part of its emphasis on exporting. Exhibitors were given training on exporting and the show arranged for private one-on-one meetings between international buyers and exhibitors after the show.
International buyers were particularly interested in the dried peaches from Batth's company.
"This is the first time they're interested in anything but raisins," said sales director Rani Batth. "I'm hopeful it will go in a positive direction."
Buyer Christine Wong, who represents Hong Kong-based food distributor Nutrifarm, was looking for producers of dried fruit, nuts and fruit juices. Her company sells to stores throughout Hong Kong.
"We are very interested in products that are natural, healthy and gluten free," she said. "And we are very impressed with what we have seen."
Among the juice products that Wong liked was a pomegranate juice from Simonian Farms in Fresno.
Some companies used the show to launch new products, such as Fresno-based Pacific Choice Brands. The company makes food for other brands and sells 1,500 items around the world. It calls itself the No. 1 seller of Mexican salsa in Europe and the top seller of bottled garlic and peppers.
The company debuted its YA! Greek salsa at the show, a blend of three kinds of tomatoes, two olives, peppers and capers.
"We're already No. 1 in the market, so we want to expand in other areas," said president Allan Andrews.
While there were plenty of large companies at the show, smaller companies participated, too, including Tweetie's Smokin Salsa. Jim Oliver sells the salsa -- a recipe created by his wife who died five years ago -- at stores in Shaver Lake. He is hoping to break into the Fresno market.
Tulare dairy operator Ron Locke of Top O' The Morn Farms was attracting attention with his line of farm-fresh milk sold in glass bottles. The company does home delivery and has a drive-thru in Tulare. It is planning to open in Visalia soon.
"People have such a long history with drive-thru dairies and home delivery that we want to bring some of those good feelings back," Locke said.
Cold House Vodka of Modesto landed several deals with area restaurants at last year's show. This year, its cake batter vodka tied with Bella Vita dried fruit slices for the industry award for a new product.
Sheryl Ramos of Fresno was blown away by the cake batter vodka. "Wow," she said. "I feel like I have just jumped in a bowl of cake batter, and all I need is for it to start spinning around."
The public chose Rosa Brothers Milk Co.'s glass bottled milk as its favorite new product in the People's Choice Award voting.
The hundreds who sampled items Thursday evening included Gail West of Coarsegold, who came with a group of friends on her first visit to the expo.
Her favorite was the organic heirloom tomatoes from Balakian Farms in Reedley.
"It tastes just like fresh tomatoes," West said. "I bought a jar as soon as I tasted it."
Next year's expo is scheduled for July 24.