Organizers of the Fresno Food Expo, the largest regional food show in the nation, are expecting another banner year as the number of buyers, exhibitors and consumers continues to grow.
The expo, now in its sixth year, opens on July 28 at the Fresno Convention Center with a daylong business-to-business session. That evening, the public can sample food and drink from more than 100 of the San Joaquin Valley’s premier food companies.
It’s become quite a hit for the public, Valley food makers and Fresno city officials who created the expo as a way to bring local food manufacturers together with regional, national and international buyers.
Organizers that included Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin wanted to raise the profile of the local food industry while encouraging others to think about creating new products or improving existing ones.
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Amy Fuentes, the expo’s manager, said that’s exactly what has happened. She said the expo has met some of its early goals, including helping food makers get their products into retail stores. It’s also become the launch pad for startups with new products or packaging.
Over the years, exhibitors have introduced a flurry of new products, including easy to prepare vegetable kits, craft chocolate bars, new tea blends and freeze-dried fruits.
“We are always looking for ways to make things better,” said Bill Smittcamp, president and chief executive officer of Wawona Frozen Foods and an expo board member. “The new products have really brought out some nice innovative ideas and given the event a place to showcase these products.”
One of the expo’s success stories has been Flavia Takahashi-Flores, owner of P*DE*Q. She debuted the golf-ball size cheesy Brazilian bread balls at the first Fresno Food Expo in 2011.
These days they are carried in Costco stores in Northern California, the Midwest and in Ralely’s stores. She also recently signed a deal to supply Mexican retail giant Tiendas Soriana, which has 700 stores in Mexico.
Fuentes, the expo’s manager, said part of the expo’s growth hinges on defining the event in broader terms.
“This isn’t just a trade show anymore. It is a movement,” Fuentes said. “And the more we can make this region all about food, the greater the possibility for great things to happen.”
Part of that movement involves nurturing the region’s burgeoning food culture. Supporters say the expo has made significant strides in raising the public and retailers’ awareness about what is grown and made in California’s agricultural heartland.
“I have been very impressed with what we produce here and I really believe others are noticing it, too,” said Erna Cubin-Klanin, owner of the acclaimed Erna’s Elderberry House and Chateau du Sureau in Oakhurst. “People in the Valley are taking pride in what we grow and make here. They are getting excited about food and the quality of food. And all of that is good.”
This year, nearly 1,000 buyers representing local, statewide and international companies will be attending. That figure is up 4 percent from the previous year and a whopping 379 percent from its inaugural year.
About 130 exhibitors from Kern to Merced counties will offer samples of their food and drinks. Everything from banana-flavored walnut butter to a premium brandy will be showcased. Last year there were 121 exhibitors; the first year there were 65.
For exhibitors like Rosa Brothers Milk Company, the expo has become a key part of marketing their new products. The Tulare dairy won the expo’s “People’s Choice Award” in 2013 for its bottled milk.
“This is where we come when we want to introduce new products,” said Nicole Schott, marketing director for Rosa Brothers. “We can meet with buyers and customers to show them what we have.”
The dairy is rolling out a 16-ounce, single-serving milk bottle for those on the go. The milk will come in chocolate, whole milk, strawberry and banana. And unlike its larger bottles, the single serving bottles do not need to be returned for a deposit. They can simply be recycled.
“This type of bottle comes in real handy for moms who want to give their kids a quick snack or for people who want to grab a chocolate milk after their workout,” Schott said.
Equally well attended will be the public tasting event that has been renamed Expolicious. For $50 a person, ticket holders will be able to chow down on dozens of food samples and drink items from the expo’s vendors.
Expo organizers say the public’s strong and growing interest in Expolicious has helped raise the profile of local restaurants and food makers.
“When people walk into this event, it becomes an a-ha moment when they realize what comes from this region,” said Fuentes. “What we do here is cool, and we should be bragging about it.”
To keep the buzz growing about the Valley’s food culture, the expo is hosting Simon Majumdar, a chef, author and television personality. Majumdar, who has appeared on Food Network’s “Cutthroat Kitchen” and “Iron Chef,” will help judge several expo awards during the public event Thursday evening.
Fuentes said Majumdar was eager to come back after visiting Fresno last fall at the request of a friend. They hope that he shares his experiences with others in the food industry.
“One of the things he said to us is that how did he not know that this place (the Valley) existed,” Fuentes said. “We think his sentiment is what we want everyone to think about the Valley.”
Along with Majumdar’s appearance, the expo will also unveil a new competition during Expolicious.
New this year will be an hors d’oeurves competition featuring 11 restaurants, including Ampersand Ice Cream, Quesadilla Gorilla, School House Restaurant & Tavern and Piazza Del Pane. The public can also taste the dishes that will be made using ingredients from the exhibitors. Awards will be given in several categories, including best use of local ingredients.
The expo also will honor innovative food products with the Buyer’s Choice Award and the People’s Choice Award. A panel of celebrity judges will select the buyers choice award and a public vote will determine the people’s choice winner.
For more information about the Fresno Food Expo, visit www.fresnofoodexpo.com.