An award-winning 20-year-old entrepreneur, innovative food products and a rising profile of the San Joaquin Valley’s food makers were among the highlights of this year’s Fresno Food Expo.
Billed as the nation’s largest regional food show, the expo – held Thursday at downtown’s Fresno Convention Center – connects nearly 1,000 buyers representing local, regional and international companies with more than 130 Valley food makers, eager for some space on the grocery store shelf.
Now in its sixth year, the expo has increasingly become the go-to event in the Valley for releasing new products, packaging and new ventures.
The expo’s public event called Expolicious is from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday and allows the public to sample food and beverages from the local vendors. Tickets are $50 per person. Also, the winner of the People’s Choice award will be announced. About 1,000 people are expected to attend.
Among the first-timers at this year’s show was Aubrey Lim, a 20-year-old Fresno State student majoring in food systems entrepreneurship.
Lim developed a jerky made from beef heart. The snack, called Aubrey’s Extreme Jerky, is softer than most other types and has a richer flavor. It comes in teriyaki and spicy chili.
An avid climber, Lim eats jerky often as a quick protein snack. And she also became aware that beef hearts were gaining attention in the food world’s nose-to-tail movement. The idea is to use as much of the cow as possible, including the lesser-known parts.
After developing a recipe that she liked, she turned to SnackMasters in Hilmar to produce the finished product.
“When people tasted it, they really liked,” Lim said.
Although it’s sold in just a few outlets, including MetalMark and Gazebo Gardens in Fresno, Lim impressed the judging panel for the expo’s Buyer’s Choice Award. She won first place.
“There are so many established companies here, and I think what they saw in me was the opportunity to grow,” Lim said. “This is all very exciting.”
Lim also received interest from several retailers. Among those was Gene Gong of General Food store in Woodlake.
Gong attends the expo to find new products he can carry in his small grocery store.
“She has a good product, and it’s different, and that is what I like,” Gong said.
One of the benefits of the expo, Gong said, is finding something new.
“A lot of times we don’t realize that some of the best products are coming right from our own backyard,” he said.
Organizers have said that one of the expo’s goals is to let the world know about the caliber of products made in the Valley. While some companies, like Wawona Frozen Foods, Gerawan Farming or Busseto Foods, are widely known, many others are not.
Chef, author and television personality Simon Majumdar came to this year’s expo as a guest of the event. Majumdar said he was blown away at the diversity and quality of what is made here.
He was also surprised that more people don’t know about the Valley and its food makers. He was impressed with family-run companies, like Valley Lahvosh Baking Co., that are being run by the third generation.
“Fresno has all these stories about their companies that they sometimes seem afraid to tell,” Majumdar said. “I say you should be proud of what you have here.”
Los Angeles transplants David Wolfe and Courtney Carini, co-owners of Crazy Go Nuts, came specifically to the Valley to expand their business, flavored walnuts and walnut butter. They’ve partnered with Poindexter Nut in Selma and are in the process of building a manufacturing plant in Fowler.
“It just made a lot of sense for us to be close to the source of our walnuts,” Wolfe said.
The partnership is something expo officials hope to see more of as food entrepreneurs view the Valley as a site for launching new products.
“We really need to embrace and build on that,” said Amy Fuentes, expo manager. “The more we can make this region all about food, the more people will want to be here.”