The sights, scents, flavors and entrepreneurial stories filling three floors of the Javits Center in New York City this week were as different as bone broth and chickpea brownies, as varied as truffles from a 20-year-old German chocolate maker and chili-flavored granola from a Brooklyn startup.
Some 2,670 food companies from 55 countries served samples of goodies aimed at appealing to foodies of all stripes, in the hopes of building brand buzz and sealing those all-important distribution deals that will get their products onto more US retail shelves and restaurant menus.
New brands need a niche
Forty-nine food and beverage makers filled this year’s New Brands on the Shelf aisle, each with a story to tell about how their sweet and savory treats came to market.
A glance around the show proves how competitive the specialty food arena can be, and for food makers the toughest part can be finding a niche that still needs filling.
“We see more and more products everyday, and more and more copycats,” said Mark Goddard, founder of Charlotte, N.C.-based Speedy Tamale. The company’s line of packaged tamale kits include a packet of corn masa, seasonings and a paper wrapper with the texture of corn husk.
Consumers have a choice of five flavors and they can fill the tamales with anything from traditional beef or pork to beans or tofu.
“There’s more variety than ever for the consumer, but it makes harder to find a void in the marketplace,” said Goddard, who sold another food business before founding Speedy Tamale.
A healthy glow
Another new brand that found a niche is Delighted By Dessert Hummus, a sweet take on the traditional chickpea-based dip. Makenzie Marzluff started making the hummus and taking it to parties a few years ago and friends told her she should market it.
Eventually she realized there was a demand and that nobody else was doing it, and 18 months ago she launched the product at farmers markets, where it sold out fast every time. Now it’s in 40 Wegman’s stores in the Northeast, in four flavors: Chocolate Chip, Snickerdoodle, Brownie Batter and Orange Ginger.
The dips are vegan, high fiber, gluten-free, soy-free and between 40 and 80 calories per serving.
Bean-based products are growing in popularity as consumers continue their quest for healthier options that don’t sacrifice taste, said Kramer of the Specialty Food Association. “Everyone’s interested in eating more vegetables and we’re seeing real staying power for the plant-based trend.”
The array of diverse options grows each year, and the new product aisle boasted several, including Pure Genius brand chickpea-based brownies. Former health journalist and certified health coach Nancy Kalish created the sweet treats out of necessity.
“I knew exactly what to eat every day to be healthy, but I have this terrible sweet tooth and it was always a struggle,” she said.
Kalish created and tweaked the recipes for her Deep Chocolate Brownie and Chocolate Chunk Blondie for a while before deciding to launch a food company last year. She scrambled to debut the healthy indulgences at a trade show in 2015 and they’re now on the shelf at 70 Whole Foods Markets, she said.
Not all of the beans at the show came in the form of sweets. Aaron Gatti created four savory flavors of BRAMI brand lupini beans about two years ago, inspired by his wife, a vegetarian who flipped for the traditional Italian snack the first time she tasted it, he said.
Lupini beans offer the most protein per calorie of any plant food, he said, and the 35-calorie per serving snack is also high in fiber and essential minerals. BRAMI beans are blanched and pickled, so they’re shelf stable, and they come in Chili Lime, Hot Pepper, Sea Salt and Garlic & Herb.
Flavored by family
Many of the nibbles on display took no time at all from inspiration to finished product. Others, like The Matzo Project, were years in the making. Co-founder Ashley Albert had the idea for a better-tasting matzo years ago, so long ago that she knew just what she wanted the packaging to look like long before she and partner Kevin Rodriquez created the different flavors of matzo, matzo crisps and matzo ball soup kits.
The pair sent a designer photos of both their grandmothers and the thin, stylish woman gracing the packaging and telling us “Eat something, you look skinny,” is a composite of both grandmas, Albert said.
Family and causes are at the heart of some of the other new products at the show this year as well, including Mert’s Nuts, a brand of mixed nuts that Meredith Haab created from her mom’s recipe as a way to raise funds and support research into cutaneous lymphoma, the aggressive cancer that claimed her mother’s life.
Moms Meg Barnhart and Jane McKay launched The Zen of Slow Cooking, a line of spice blends for the slow cooker, in part as a way to guarantee time for meditation while preparing the ingredients. Barnhart’s son has a developmental disability, a fact that spurred her to partner with Planet Access Company to employ adults with intellectual disabilities to package all of the spice mixes.
The flavors of Tunisia
Tunisia was the show’s second-ever country sponsor, following last year’s inaugural country sponsor Italy. Forty food and beverage companies from the country displayed their olive oil, dates, pasta, spicy harissa, sweets and other goods in a high-profile pavilion.
“They make a significant investment and in return they get the best spot in the show,” said Louise Kramer, communications director for the Specialty Food Association, which has hosted the show since a small group of artisan cheese makers launched it 62 years ago.
Tunisia’s efforts represent a government initiative and a commitment to helping the country’s food makers expand exports, Kramer said
And the Sofi goes to…
The Sofi Awards recognizing the top products in a range of categories is always a highlight of the show. This year’s winners included Brussizzle Sprouts, Ginger Hemp Granola and No. 3 Smoked Whiskey Sour Mix.
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