by Terrance Mc Arthur
Despite the drought, California is still the king of American agriculture, and the San Joaquin Valley is still the center of California agriculture. To help the Valley stay on top of the food heap, the Fresno Food Expo helps food producers (farmers) meet food buyers (market chains, restaurants, school districts…and people who like to eat). The fifth annual Expo happened July 23, with 121 producers meeting 917 buyers from all over the Valley, state, nation, and world, and 1100 happy people showing up for the evening’s public session.
I wandered the aisles of the Fresno Convention Center’s Exhibit Hall for almost three hours, traipsing from booth to booth, tasting samples, getting flyers, pamphlets, and literature, and picking up souvenirs, packages to try on my friends and family, and other goodies. By the time I left, after hours of near continual noshing, munching, and grazing, I was looking for a forklift to scoop me up and take me away.
Looking for new products is part of what makes the Fresno Food Expo exciting, but I admit that there are certain companies that are my favorites, ones I’ll mark on my map as must-see vendors.
• Harris Ranch Beef (Need I say more?) had a beef-kabob that looked steamroller-sized. The meat was oozing life and flanked by tender onion slabs (Vegans need not apply at this booth).
• Wawona Frozen Foods had a dazzling array of products, as usual, and passersby could not resist trying the best fruits of the Valley.
• Casa de Tamales was there, even though they were barely moved into their new location, 609 E. Olive Avenue in the Tower District. I’ve been a big fan of their savory tamales like Creamy Chicken Poblano and Spinach & Artichoke, but I hadn’t tried any of their sweet tamales—a blueberry and cream cheese tamale could be the ultimate dessert, like a New York Cheesecake wrapped in sweet corn!
• Sun Maid Raisins—What could be more Central Valley than that? Raisins, Golden Raisins, Organic Raisins, and . . . Yogurt-Covered Raisins! In the words of Huell Houser: Amazing!
• Tioga-Sequoia Brewery—I didn’t try their products (I was my designated walker—I don’t drink alcohol, anyway), but they were very popular, with people lining up to belly up to the bar.
• P*De*Q is Fresno’s version of pão de queijo, a Brazilian cheesebread made from tapioca, crisp and crusty on the outside, with a puffy interior. This year, the company introduced Pizza*Q for crust-making (What’s the Brazilian equivalent of “Mama Mia?”).
• Valley Lahvosh Baking Company still has those wonderful, heart-shaped cracker breads, just the right size for dipping. Hummus, anyone?
What Do Buyers Want?
I talked to Nick Marziliano of Sam’s Italian Deli & Market in Fresno. He said that he looks for “unique items for the Valley, value-added.” Last year, he saw Deb’s Gourmet Smoked Jalapenos, and now they are featured on Sam’s signature sandwiches.
Each year, vendors use the Food Expo to roll out new products that might attract new buyers. This year, 29 companies submitted 32 nominees for the “Buyer’s Choice” and “People’s Choice” awards. The judges who chose the ten finalists and the Buyers’ award included Erna Kubin-Clanin, chef/owner of Erna’s Elderberry House. The number-three new product in the panel’s opinion was Busseto Foods Natural Salami Snack Cups, part of this year’s trend of grab-and-go foods, single-serving packaging that is easy to take with you and eat on your way to something else. I was fond of the Sriracha Sun Dried Tomato Ketchup from Traina Foods, it gives a nice buzz to the tongue, and it came in second. The winner of the Buyer’s Choice Award for 2015 was Top O’ The Morn Farms’ Farmstead Sweet Cream Butter, something that would have lots of uses and would appeal to today’s market.
The People’s Choice voting was done online, before the Expo, and there was a clear winner. Almost one-third of the 4,000-plus votes went to Molucca Chocolates for their Craft Chocolate bars. There are only two ingredients in Molucca’s bars: cocoa beans and sugar cane. They currently offer three varieties, each with beans from a different country: Dominican Republic, Peru, and Indonesia. Each has different flavor qualities, just as wines from different wineries, grown from the same varieties of grapes, will not taste the same.
It finished out of the prize-level, but one of my favorite new products was from Baloian Farms, the Mini Pepper Dipper Cups. Each clear cup holds four colorful sweet peppers in different tones. Under the lid is a sealed container of ranch-style dipping sauce. At last year’s Expo, people said they would like the peppers in a grab-and-go format, and the company listened. My wife and I snacked on this, and found it easy to use, flavorful, and nearly addictive. Look for it in your neighborhood store, and ask for it if you can’t find it. (NOTE: I am not affiliated with Baloian farms; I just love the product).
I Got Stuff!
I must admit that one of the big reasons I go to the Fresno Food Expo, besides the food samples, is the bagfuls of promotional giveaways that I get. There were stress balls in different shapes from different companies, sunglasses, a flashlight, pens and pencils, coasters, and assorted nifty things.
I had a great time, even if I felt like an overstuffed chair when I waddled out of the Exhibit Hall. If you have a company that would like to get its food products exposed to new parts of the marketplace, consider applying for a space at the 6th Annual Fresno Food Expo in July 2016.