Bethany Clough

The Fresno Food Expo is growing up, with more food from more places and other changes

The Fresno Food Expo turns 8 this year. And like any 8-year-old, it’s growing up.

This year’s show has double the number of food companies handing out samples compared to its first year. For the first time, the show has opened itself to food manufacturers not just from the San Joaquin Valley, but also from around the state while promoting California foods.

The expo happens Thursday. During the day, 135 food manufacturers will show off their products to about 700 buyers.

The public portion of the event, Expolicious, runs from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. About 1,200 people are expected to attend, and tickets – at $50 each – are expected to sell out. Ticket holders get to sample food, including many new products, and can buy food they like directly from the maker.

Expo goers can expect to nosh on chocolate-covered fig bites, bone broth, hazelnut whiskey, sun-dried plum barbecue sauce, tortilla chips and hard lemonade.

Ten restaurants (ranging from Ampersand Ice Cream to Max’s Bistro) are also competing to come up with the best recipes using food from food expo vendors. The public can sample them. The recipes will be judged by Simon Majumdar, a food and travel writer and Food Network TV personality.

Simon Majumdar Approved Photo
Food Network regular Simon Majumdar will attend the Fresno Food Expo.

The biggest change at this year’s expo is the shift to focus on products made in California, not just Fresno.

That is bringing in some new companies like one of the state’s pioneering avocado growers, Henry Avocado of Escondido, along with big-name breweries, including Lagunitas Brewing Company and Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.

The switch is pulling in a few more buyers to the show, including buyers from Albertsons, Vons and Smart & Final who are buying for stores in southern and northern California, said Fresno Food Expo manager Amy Fuentes.

About 50 more buyers are expected to participate, but she expects the change to significantly bump up numbers next year.

“Especially retailers from out of the area, they have thought of the Fresno Food Expo as really just Fresno,” she said. “Once they’ve seen some of those California announcements (about switching to a statewide focus), it piques their interest because they think there’s some more variety.”

The barrel-aged bourbon caramels from Marich Pancrafted Chocolates are competing for the Fresno Food Expo’s Consumer Choice Awards.

Marich Pancrafted Chocolates of Hollister will be attending the show for the first time. Workers will give out samples of its barrel-aged bourbon caramels and its macadamia nuts dipped in coconut topping and layers of chocolate.

The company has participated in other big food shows, like the Fancy Foods Show, which attracts participants from around the country to its shows in New York City and San Francisco, said Kristen Wynn, associate marketing manager at Marich.

But at the Fresno show, Marich said she wants to talk with buyers both big and small.

“I would love to connect with some of the boutique retailers, because I believe sometimes they get left behind,” she said.

She also likes the show’s shift to focus on California as a brand and a lifestyle. It pairs well with their product, she said, noting that Marich has switched to fair-trade chocolate and removed artificial flavors and colors from its products.

“We’re all about supporting the California lifestyle economy,” she said. “This is the perfect fit for us.”

The awards were also tweaked this year.

The winners of the New Products Awards, Consumer Choice Awards and the Fred Ruiz Entrepreneurial Award will be announced at 9 a.m. Thursday.

The new products will be judged by a new California Retail Advisory panel and Phil Lempert, a journalist and food marketing expert who goes by the name the Supermarket Guru.

The expo will be working with the advisory panel year round to put a spotlight on California products.

The public has already voted on on the Consumer Choice awards. The finalists will be judged by a consumer panel made to reflect California demographics like gender, age, ethnicity, income and education.

Bethany Clough: 559-441-6431, @BethanyClough