Last week I was rewarded by my company and was able to go to the Fancy Food Show. It’s in San Francisco, California, where I grew up, so I saw a lot of my old friends and even some around industry.
This was my first time there and wow, it was huge! There were three halls littered with free samples. It was amazing! I have never eaten so much cheese in my life!
The Fancy Food Show is pretty much the mecca of all things specialty food. What a specialty food is, is a food product that has value and has characteristics such as local, artisan, and innovative. This is where you can find the new hit flavor trends and the new hit.
Here’s what I believe are the most beneficial things to take out of this trip.
Closer to the Cutting Edge
If I were to describe food innovation, it would be the following:
Restaurant –> Specialty Food –> Invested Food –> Mainstream
Note that this is more about ingredient and flavor innovation. There are many more types of food innovation but this is the most tangible one.
Innovation comes directly from the people who are hands on and who therefore cook the food. Chefs have the ability to be innovative because the risk to innovate is a lot lower. Anything from rainbow grilled cheese to sushi bagels can be made small scale, served, and the reception is instant. It might take a chef an hour to think of, another hour to execute, and if it fails, they receive no penalty.
Therefore, it’s assumed that all food innovation used to come from a chef and once they started to become popular, people begin to take interest and invest.
So that’s when the next step, Specialty Food, comes in. The best example I can give you is from Terra Chips, who make specialty vegetable chips. I was fortunate to listen to Jack Acree, a man who was there from the beginning, speak at a lecture there and their story was interesting.
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Two chefs were working under this superstar chef at a restaurant and the chef started deep frying things like lotus root and putting them on top. Everyone raved about them. However, the two chefs could never be as good as the superstar chef so he started to be better at something else.
They took off and decided to start frying vegetables like lotus root on their own. Soon it became things like orange sweet potatoes, purple potatoes, taro, etc. They started with a bicycle, then an ice cream truck, then finally got a distributor going.
At this stage, it was a specialty food, which is the main focus of the show: to showcase amazing food and flavor innovation in a specialty food scale.
Ideally, once the brand gets big enough, whether through venture capitalism or bootstrapping, they can go into more invested food which is where shows like the Natural products Expo come into play. Examples of this mainly include acquired or heavily invested companies like Annies, EPIC, and EXO. This is where it splits off, because in the Natural Products Expo, new players get into the game that Specialty Foods can’t even touch. Once you talk about plant-based meat, mushroom coffee, and calming shots, you’re playing with so many other people now.
I can summarize mainstream in one sentence: exactly what happened to sriracha.
This was the way I convinced my company to send me there. I told them that innovation is on the cutting edge. I have a lot of ideas coming out of that show, the next step is to convince people now.
You Learn a Different Side of the Food Industry
In a corporate setting, all you have is one role. However, through touring the show and learning through their highly valuable education sessions… there is just so much more.
It was like being blindfolded and touching a snake, and then when you lift the blindfold… it became an elephant! You recognize just how interconnected (and hard!) the specialty food industry is. Brokers and distributors are another type of food professional I’d love to have on the podcast!
How to price food, how to distribute margins to the people helping you distribute your product, stuff like this is complex, but very useful! Not just for a specialty food company, but surprisingly for a product developer.
What learning about the economics of how your food works, you have a huge amount of leverage and knowledge base that you can use when communicating between marketing and purchasing. Understanding the numbers (which is sadly all that corporate will care about) will make you a super star in the company.
You Appreciate Food More (and where it came from)
The specialty food system is complex, and the mainstream food system is super complex. Realizing what goes into a food product makes you appreciate what really goes into your food. The specialty food market is charming, but it’s also very difficult to work. You work 60 hour days and have many different hats, it’s much different from corporate.
Once you realize what goes into the food they make, maybe it’s ok to go to a specialty food store and buy an expensive box of chocolates. The cost makes sense and there is always a great story behind it.
You also realize that these foods are not only growing, but they mean something to people. Maybe it’s the satisfaction of supporting the underdog, who’s amazing product is new and exciting.
Or maybe it’s that small glimmer of hope that one day, you can start something like this.