Summer Fancy Food Show

Whew! That was crazy. My family and I just returned from the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City.

It was 3 days of pure madness. It felt like everyone and their sister came to try our mustard. In the end, I got an enormous list of contacts to follow up with and even a couple orders I’ve got to pack up (more on that below).

We arrived Friday afternoon to hand-carry everything in (no way was I going to pay the HUGE handling fees charged by the union laborers). My parents and I set the booth up and hit the hotel to crash for a little bit. I had a gyro the size of my face for dinner. It was amazing. On Saturday, my parents and I hit up three different bakeries before my first business builders meeting (speed dating with food companies and buyers). It was with a large catalog company looking for small jars of mustard which I don’t make anymore (but with the right volume, I could be swayed). I returned to my booth to put the finishing touches up. At 5pm, our booth was setup. We were ready to go.

Then it all came crashing down, quite literally.

The shelf holding 32 jars of mustard fell to the ground, breaking one jar and denting 16. It was front-heavy so we adjusted the support and made the dented jars samples. But, I lost it. The stress of the event built up. I thought it was over. Luckily, my family came to rescue, assuring me everything would be ok. Anyway, let’s not focus on the disasters and get to the important stuff that you want to know. First, the sales numbers and connections we made:

Sales from the Fancy Food Show

We wrote 6 orders at the show for a total of $975.24. Keep in mind this isn’t a selling show. Yes, you can write orders, but you can’t sell product right off the show floor. I’ll likely get a few more orders in the coming weeks from the show. My goal wasn’t sales, though. It was simply to build relationships that would lead to much bigger sales. Here’s just a sampling of who we talked to at the show:

  • Crate&Barrel
  • Christmas Tree Shops
  • Earthfare
  • Fresh Market
  • Southern Season
  • Bed Bath & Beyond
  • Central Market
  • Plus, many super-cool independent retailers

Plus, most surprising to me was the number of places who wanted to export our product:

  • Canada
  • England
  • France
  • The Philippines
  • Puerto Rico

How did we get these people to talk to us?

It was quite simple, actually. Everyone has a badge with their name, company, and role. They were easier to read from a distance, so we simply roped them in. If they were a big player in the industry, they walked around with their badge turned around, as to hide their identity. Before the show, I saw a panel of trade-show experts mention “people won’t come to you — you need to go to them”. I took that to heart and bought small trays that held small pretzel cups. Here’s how it played out:

  • My brother would pull someone in to try mustard
  • My  parents engaged with them and passed important contacts to me
  • My sister-in-law kept the engine running with samples and mustard

Everyone cycled through different jobs throughout the 3 days (it was significantly slower on Tuesday aka “feed-the-exhibitors-day”. My brother was best at pulling people in. He had learned the basics of the business enough from hearing me talk, so he was able to answer questions when I was busy.

My parents are awesome conversationalists, so they kept people engaged and talking (even if it wasn’t about mustard). And my sister in law is super observant and was an efficient behind-the-scenes organizer. In total, I have 168 leads to follow up with. While not all sales leads, some are ingredient suppliers, packaging suppliers, and some business services (all of which went to the bottom of the pile). One thing I found helpful handling all the leads was to prioritize who I needed to get in touch with first. The stack of business cards was 2″ thick. We separated them into “priority” and “not priority” when we got home. An easy way to target the big fish, Now, on to the costs — which to everyone is usually a big shock.

Here are all of the costs I incurred:

  • Show Fee: $3,750 (10×10 booth)
  • Hotel: $1,225 (4 nights, plus parking & “fees”)
  • What’s New/Hot Showcase & Advertising: $650
  • Lead Scanner: $396.06
  • Print Materials: $801.59
  • Pretzels & Cups: $278.96
  • Misc. Supplies: $266.08
  • Public Relations Firm: $2,000
  • Transportation (driving from VT): $201.32
  • Food & Meals: $296.59
  • Sample (Goods) Cost: $53.40
  • SOFI Awards Submission: $95.68
  • Booth Design: $197.56
  • Sweat Equity of my Family: Priceless

Total: $10,212.24

This was not cheap. It blows my mind I had money in the bank to keep the business running. (Side note: barely. There was one point in the process where so much money had gone out, I had less than $200 in my bank account. Welcome to a food start-up). Now, I know you have questions. So, here’s a list of the ones I asked myself:

1. Why did you exhibit in the first place?

I needed to get my product in front of eyes outside of Vermont. Vermont is a small state – just over 500,000 people. It’s nearly impossible to own a food business and survive with distribution exclusively in Vermont. To get in front of almost 30,000 people who might be interested in your product line, it was worth it. I also went to validate what I was trying to do with Green Mountain Mustard. I make a super-premium mustard that’s been validated in Vermont, but what about the rest of the nation?

2. What on earth did you print?

When I added up the printing costs, I was shocked. Almost $1,000 worth of printing? Holy crap. Here’s a short list of what I printed:

  • 5,000 business cards
  • 2,000 sell sheets (double-sided, full-color, glossy)
  • 1,000 postcards promoting new fall flavors
  • 250 press & media postcards
  • 5 t-shirts
  • 1 big banner (which I had to throw out)
  • 11 laminated & magnetic flavor signs
  • 3 Point of sale signs
  • 1 easel-back for the press office

Keep in mind, many of these marketing materials can be re-used after the show for our own selling purposes. But, still. After walking the Winter Fancy Food Show in January 2014 (my second time, mainly because I love San Francisco!), I noticed everyone had upped their game. Everything was beautifully printed. Keeping up with the Jones’, you know?

3. $300 worth of pretzels. Umm…what?

Oh, sampling. I can’t count on my hands the number of times my family and I disagreed on how we should sample our mustards. Should we have it open? What about behind the counter and people ask? But, then that turns people away because it’s annoying. And what about tasting spoons? Pretzels? Gluten free folks? There were so many variables. Normally, we sample with pretzel sticks shaken out of a container. It works for farmer’s markets, but not one of the biggest industry trade shows. Ultimately, I sampled with waffle pretzels in small sampling cups. This kept the germs at bay and gave attendees an opportunity to taste a couple mustards.

I kept the mustard cold on insulated coolers (more on what we built in a later blog post) because consumers are going to eat almost the entire jar cold from their fridge. Plus, who likes warm mustard? I’m hoping to adapt this sampling method to other events in the future where health department officials are a lot more strict. We purchased the waffle pretzels in two large 27 pound boxes. This proved to be a problem because they kind of went stale by the start of day 3. I got called out once for it by another vendor, but ultimately we just kept running with it because there wasn’t much we could do. Lesson learned: just buy bagged pretzels. Oh, and don’t buy that many because we probably only went through about 10-12 pounds. Want pretzels?

4. Do you really need a lead scanner? What about business cards?

Yes. Yes, you do. Everyone at the Fancy Food Show gets a badge with a barcode on it. The lead scanner lets you scan those badges when someone is interested in your company or products. You can then classify those leads (send samples, retailer, distributor, broker, press, etc). Then, you can print them out and write notes (or if you got the mobile app, you can store all of your leads electronically). For me, that meant not losing coveted leads and the ability to quickly take care of event attendees at our booth. Sure, I got PLENTY of business cards, but the lead scanner was a life-saver. The day after the show, all the leads I scanned, plus leads from the What’s New What’s Hot showcase got emailed to me. I downloaded them, put them in a Google spreadsheet, and went to work following up. This kept it easy to track.

5. The big elephant: Why $2,000 on a PR firm?

Hear me out. As a food business owner, things fall by the wayside. You’re the cook, accountant, cleaner, director of operations, salesman, marketer, tech guy, etc. Something is bound to just not happen. For me, that’s PR. I’ve always ignored it. Over 800 press and media signed up to come to the Fancy Food Show. Yes, I had access to the list, but to get in touch with all 800 about my new & innovative mustard company would have taken me weeks. Five weeks before the show, I broke down. I was overwhelmed with everything that was not finished. That’s when I sent an email to a long-time friend who owns an amazing PR firm in Burlington, VT. The firm excels at placing specialty food clients in the media. After our first meeting (which was like a backyard BBQ), I was convinced. The deal: My account executive would pitch Green Mountain Mustard to all 800 media, coordinate sample requests, schedule booth appointments, and do the follow up with everyone who stopped by to meet me. Not going to lie, this was a weight lifted off my shoulders. And well worth the $2,000.

Did it pay off?

Yes! During our first couple meetings, I learned that I had to showcase something new. I casually said “oh, well we have these cool new fall flavors, but I’m not making them until the fall months.” “BRING THEM!” one of the partners says to me with passion. I was planning to bring my regular line up of 8 flavors to the show, but buyers, retailers, and media LOVE new products. So, with four weeks to go before the show, I scrambled to make our fall flavors. As I planned, I realized, these new, never-before-seen flavors were what was going to draw traffic to my booth. Slight change of plans for the better. We received media interest from small and large outlets – blogs to magazines and a couple websites. Things will take time, but I think I’ll land somewhere and in good praises! I sent samples left and right. My account executive was stellar. She helped me with a lot of prep for the show in terms of how to get the most out of our first appearance. This isn’t the firm’s first rodeo, so I knew I was in good hands.

What I’d do differently next time

Nothing ever goes smoothly. Ever. And I’m starting to get used to that. Here’s a couple things I’d do differently next time.

1. Have a hard deadline two weeks before the show.

No matter how many lists I checked off, it came down to the wire the night before we left for NYC. My parents and I were still putting together final touches on the display. A delivery happened three days later than it was supposed to. Such is life. I also screwed up the size of what was supposed to be a big banner at the back of our booth. Out $120. Plan B. Next time, we’re setting a deadline that’s 2 weeks before any big show. That way, we have time to plan for what didn’t happen. (Of course that didn’t eliminate the trip to Duane Reade to get batteries!)

2. Better training for my team (aka my family)

If I was hit by a bus, we’d pretty much have no Green Mountain Mustard. Sure, my parents could continue it at a much smaller scale, but there would be no crazy guy (that’s me) leading the effort. With that being said, there were several times our booth was swamped and I was already talking to someone. That meant my parents, brother, or his wife, would have to talk to people. And buyer’s rapid-fire questions you need to know the answers to on the fly. I didn’t do the best with training my family. They knew pricing, but not the intricacies of how the business operated, the ingredients we used, etc. I created a flavor cheat sheet for them, but it was only a couple days before the show. Next time, I’m going to develop a better process for training new and current team members. They’ve got to know everything about GMM.

3. Move the table to the front of the booth (which we did the last 2 days)

I started out with our sample table at the back of our booth. This made it so attendees could walk into my booth and have a discussion. It felt more open. But, when my PR firm reps stopped by they mentioned I wanted to get mustard in everyone’s mouth and to push the table forward. For Monday and Tuesday we did that. While it created a barrier between me and the customer, it definitely got more people trying the mustard.

4. Ship booth contents on a pallet and fly down

This is assuming money is no object (which it totally still is). Hand carrying was great going in, but not going out. Not only was it 95 degrees packing up, but it was rush hour in NYC and, to top it all off, the escalators and elevators stopped working. That left everyone hand-carrying all of their dollied stuff up the escalators. Thankfully, we all helped each other out and got through it. And parking was another story. It was a MESS. Everyone in my family was incredibly frustrated with the situation. The show ended at 4:00pm. We left the city at 6:30pm. It normally takes us 30 minutes to pack up. Not this time. To alleviate all of this, I’d love to pack everything I need on a pallet and ship it down to my booth. Then, I’d fly down. Again, if money were no object…..

In conclusion……

I had an amazing time in NYC. Yes, it was long.Yes, I still can’t feel my feet. And yes, my immune system hates me, but it was so worth it. We connected with people I never thought would even taste our product. Really, I was looking for validation that we were doing something right. That we had a product more than just Vermonters loved — and we did. It was exciting to see the energy around our booth, the love for our packaging design, and how much people appreciated what we were doing as a family in tiny-town Vermont.

The follow up has already started — phone calls and emails. The follow up is 90% of the show. I’ve shipped the orders we got at the show and have moved on to landing the larger accounts we connected with. Wish me luck! Did you exhibit at the Fancy Food Show this year or in the past? What was your experience? I’d love to hear form you! Also, if you have questions about exhibiting at the  Fancy Food Show, I’d be happy to answer them.