In less than one week, some of the best food producers in the San Joaquin Valley will be meeting with buyers from throughout the state, nation and world as the Fresno Food Expo celebrates its fifth year.
The annual event has become the largest regional food show in the nation. More than 700 buyers, including major retailers, restaurants and specialty food stores, will visit with nearly 120 Valley-based exhibitors during the business-to-business portion of the expo. The public can purchase tickets to sample the food and drink during an evening event.
Organizers say the overall goal of the expo is to give the region’s food makers the opportunity to boost sales, add jobs and raise the Valley’s profile as a powerhouse producer of fresh and packaged foods.
“We started out with just 198 buyers at the first show and we have more than tripled that,” said Amy Fuentes, the city’s economic development initiatives manager and the expo’s director. “Our goal this year is 750 buyers. And we are pretty sure we can get that.”
Every year, the show hits new benchmarks with either a larger number of exhibitors or new retailers. This year, Bay Area grocery store retailer Mollie Stones Market is joining the likes of Walmart, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Costco, Save Mart and Albertsons-Safeway.
Mollie Stones has nine stores in the San Francisco Bay Area and carries a wide range of local and organic products.
“We are also starting to see some wholesale companies and different distributors coming,” Fuentes said. “Interest in the expo is happening across the board.”
Fuentes is also pleased to see well-known Valley companies such as the Sanger-based Pitman Farms attending as an exhibitor. The family-run company produces Mary’s brand of free-range chickens and turkeys. The Pitman’s line of premium poultry is sold nationwide.
Mary Pitman, a company founder, said food shows like Fresno’s are important to help spread the word about the Valley’s food producers.
“It reminds everyone locally that a lot of food is produced in the San Joaquin Valley,” Pitman said. “Although a lot of it is sent to LA and San Francisco, we need to be supportive of our local farmers. I’m always amazed by what I learn at these shows.”
Fuentes said the expo has become a perfect launching pad for a growing group of food entrepreneurs. Among the new products being showcased is a hand-made dark chocolate from the Molucca Chocolate company. The company makes the chocolate in small batches and uses cacao beans from specific regions of Central and South America. A new extra virgin olive oil from Clovis-based Scout Olive Oil will make its premier along with a new fruit and vegetable drink from Grimmway Farms in Bakersfield.
We tell smaller companies to look at this as an investment for your mid- to long-term planning. If you eventually want to be seen at Whole Foods, or Lassen’s or a boutique store, this is where you start.
Amy Fuentes, Fresno Food Expo manager
Although some companies are skittish about attending out of fear they can’t supply larger customers, Fuentes says the opportunity to meet and talk with buyers is invaluable. She said sometimes the payoff isn’t in increased sales, but added knowledge.
“We tell smaller companies to look at this as an investment for your mid- to long-term planning,” she said. “If you eventually want to be seen at Whole Foods, or Lassen’s or a boutique store, this is where you start.”
One company that learned an important lesson at last year’s expo was Renegade Snacks of Fresno, makers of flavored raisins. The company was told by buyers from the East Coast to tweak their packaging to accentuate the flavors of the raisins. The fruit comes in lemon, orange strawberry and watermelon.
“The told us that the way the package was designed, it did not focus on the product as much as it did the brand name,” said Steve Martin, co-owner of Renegade Snacks. “The buyers said if they don’t know what’s in the package, the customers will keep walking. And that was very important and useful information for us.”
The company pulled back plans to exhibit at the expo until it redesigns its package. They are also working on a display box to be used in convenience and grocery stores.
Also gaining some valuable experience from the expo were the owners of L.T. Sue Co. in Hanford. The company makes a variety of tea blends and experienced a boost in sales after being named a co-winner of the Buyer’s Choice award, along with Casa de Tamales in Fresno.
I am always astounded at what we can produce here.
Arianne Wing, an owner of L.T. Sue Co.
Arianne Wing, co-owner of the tea company, said its online sales tripled last year after the expo. The tea-maker also realized the value of tapping the wholesale market. It already has produced a custom-made blend for Erna’s Elderberry House in Oakhurst.
“I am not as nervous to attend this year and look forward to seeing the new products and talking with other vendors,” Wing said.
She especially wants to talk with cheesemaker Barbara Martin of Lemoore, creator of the Dairy Goddess line of cheeses. She wants to explore the possibility of making green tea cheese.
“I am always astounded at what we can produce here,” Wing said.
The Fresno Food Expo
The public event is July 23, 5 to 8 p.m., Fresno Convention Center New Exhibit Hall
Tickets are $40 and can be purchased online, http://www.fresnofoodexpo.com/.