by Risa Nye
One of the best parts of going to the Winter Fancy Food Show, produced by the Specialty Food Association: having conversations with people who abandoned first careers and day jobs (or hope to soon) to realize the dream of creating a product—and hearing what it feels like to see that product displayed in stores, or on TV, or called out as a favorite by a well-known person whose name starts with an O. Whether inspired by a family recipe, a voice in a dream, or an aha moment, every product had to start somewhere. I made it my mission to seek out a few of the stories that led these entrepreneurs to the big show.
Not all of the products I saw and tasted were winners. In fact, some were destined to be losers—either because the name is a problem, the product is a problem, or the stuff just doesn’t taste that good. One example I ran into over and over again was popcorn that lacks pop: bland, slightly soggy, and lacking the punch and crunch of really good “I could eat the whole bowl” popcorn you can make at home. Many of the cookies and crackers that proclaim to be free of offensive ingredients rate a “meh” on taste and texture. (One exception is the Walkers Gluten Free Shortbread I tried: it has the proper crunch and buttery flavor one expects of shortbread, now available for those on a gluten-free regimen.) And, much as it pains me to say this, bacon doesn’t always elevate a product. Sometimes the gratuitous addition of bacon is just wrong, and I speak from experience as someone who sampled everything from bacon-flavored beer to bacon-infused sea salt, to chocolate teamed up with bacon in many forms. With some, it was a quick nibble, followed by the search for a recycling bin; with others, it was a sustained moment of bliss. Your results may vary.
The people I talked to at the show were eager to share their stories. Here are a few of my favorites:
Sharon Tracy, co-founder of My Cup of Cake™, became an overnight success thanks to a chance conversation on a train. During her morning commute, Tracy—a home baker and successful marketing executive—talked with a colleague about her new creation: a powdered mixture added to water, which transforms into a neat little mug-size Belgian chocolate soufflé after a couple of minutes in the microwave. The friend had connections to television producers, and in less than two weeks, Sharon’s product was being touted on The View, followed by The Today Show, and Good Morning America. She barely had time to get a website together before the orders started coming in. I got a sample of the product and decided to order one on the spot as a “get well” gift. It’s just enough chocolate cake to satisfy a craving, without having to measure or clean up.
Nikki’s Cookies and Confections® Nikki Taylor has been in the cookie biz for 28 years. After a stint as a fashion model, she retired and began trying her hand at the family shortbread recipe, which had been handed down from generation to generation, going back to the 1600s. Browsing through the gourmet food section of Bloomingdale’s one day, she noticed that all the shortbread cookies were imported from Europe. When she and her business partner started the company in 1986, Nikki’s was the first cookie company to make and market preservative-free shortbread using “generous amounts of Wisconsin Grade AA butter.” Today, Nikki’s Cookies are made in Milwaukee, without preservatives, and are still full of that Wisconsin butter. She makes several types of cookies (including the sugar cookies from her mother’s recipe), and some seasonal varieties which are cut into special shapes like butterflies, bunnies and snowmen.
The Smoked Olive™ “An unintentional start-up” is the way Al Hartman describes his business. The idea came to him in a dream, he says. He and partner Brenda Chatelain explain it all in their video (courtesy of Eyefull Tower Films): the middle-of-the-night inspiration, the art, the family tradition, the passion, the way it all came together for them in the form of smoked olive oil. They also make smoked brown sugars, including a Whiskey Smoked Brown Sugar and a Chili Smoked Brown Sugar. Abundant recipes for smoked olive oil and brown sugar (not necessarily in the same dish) are available on their website. The takeaway from our conversation? When a beloved grandfather comes to you in a dream and tells you to make smoked olive oil, good things can happen.
Jen and Joe’s™ Cookie Dough Jen Laska is president of Gourmet Frozen Cookies, Inc. Her product? Individually frozen scoops of cookie dough in a variety of flavors. She and her husband Joe have been in the frozen cookie business for a couple of years (although Joe’s role is admittedly minimal—according to the website, his name is part of the brand because “it rhymes with dough.”) Jen hasn’t quit her day job yet, and notes with a touch of irony that she is a diabetes specialist. With her product, a disciplined individual could satisfy a cookie craving by baking and eating just one or two. It’s possible. Jen ran the business out of her home in West LA until the orders started pouring in from Big Stores: Safeway and Whole Foods. One unique feature of Jen’s packaging: the ingredients are listed right on the front of the box.
Ocean’s Halo Seaweed Chips™ Four dads seeking healthy snacks for their kids put their heads together and came up with the idea of making chips from seaweed. Two of these guys grew up eating potato chips, and two of them grew up eating seaweed at every meal. You can almost see the lightbulb moment when they said, “Hey … what if we could make a chip that tastes good AND is good for you?” The chips come in several flavors including Texas BBQ, Sea Salt, and Chili Lime. I sampled the Sea Salt variety: the chips are salty, crunchy, and definitely seaweed-y. At the Ocean’s Halo exhibit, I spoke with Mike Shim, a former “tech guy” now seaweed chip entrepreneur. He believes that snack-seeking parents are looking for something that appeals to kids, while sneaking in the protein and vitamins they need. I learned from their website that Ocean’s Halo casts a percentage of their profits into the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Children’s Education Fund. Doing good while tasting good: a winning combination.
Toffee Talk® Two close-knit East Bay cousins started this flourishing “labor of love” toffee business in 2009. The toffee is handmade and hand packed, and those cute ribbons are all tied by hand too. The business marked a radical mid-life career change for founder and Chief Toffee Officer Catherine Hughes, who left a 30-year career in commercial real estate and turned to her godmother’s treasured toffee recipe for inspiration. She recruited her cousin/best friend, Ellin Purdom—an investment advisor and toffee lover—who took on the role of Director of Social Networking. They got their big break when Google employees took a liking to Toffee Talk; sales of the snack-size bags begat big orders (10,000!) for more and bigger bags. (Watch their story here.) Wonder what goes into those celebrity goodie bags at award shows and movie premiers? Toffee Talk has had more than one red carpet moment—a sure measure of success.
My biggest takeaway from the Winter Fancy Food Show was not the bag full of swag I lugged home afterward; it was the collection of stories from folks like these who provided some real food for thought. Inspired, impressed, and full of tasty snacks, I await next year’s show.
Click here for part one of Risa Nye’s tour through the Winter Fancy Food Show.
Click here for some recipes from select vendors at the show.
Risa Nye lives in Oakland. Her articles and essays have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Monthly, Hippocampus magazine, and several anthologies. She writes about cocktails as Ms. Barstool for Nosh at berkeleyside.com and about other things at risanye.com.