The table was loaded with a daunting array of food products: Sauces, dips, sauces, coffee, pickles, nut "mylks," sports drinks, bacon, tempeh, and crackers made from spent beer grains. A few of the products might look familiar to those who shop at smaller markets and gourmet stores, while some you might never get to see.
The products were there to be tasted and scored, one by one, by a team of food pros, and, full disclosure, I was one of them. The panel was made up of eaters from different spheres of the food biz realm: a chef with longstanding ties to working with local small-scale producers and innovators, a food product vendor who grew her business from tiny to huge, a grocery store new product expert, and a food writer (that's me).
Our task: To help these vendors get a sense of the potential success of their product, based on taste, packaging, and viability. Our leader for the session was Andrea Gray-Grant, who happens to do this with small food product producers for a living, through her North Vancouver-based business Good to Grow.
For the first time, after several years mentoring regional food producers, Gray-Grant has organized a local trade show, aiming to bring together food processors, buyers, distributors, and other food pros to showcase - and grow - the incredible foods that B.C. has to offer.
From the Ground Up, which takes place Thursday, Feb. 21, is a trade show that may be private for the event, but with results that will for sure reach the public, because some of the food items will end up on grocery store shelves, and in your fridges and pantries. At least, for many producers, that's the goal.
Gray-Grant says that many of these food producers are at that tender stage where they are poised to hit the market, but need that hand-up from the powers that be at stores and distributors to get them to the next level. For many, like those who sit up into the wee hours in their own garages affixing home-printed labels onto containers, getting mentorship can lead them to a real business plan to not just scale up, but scale up successfully.
"Vancouver is a hub for new products and trends," explains Gray-Grant in a post-tasting session phone call. "This seems to be the city where people take those things to market." And while the city is the setting - and often its buyers the conduit - From the Ground Up is focused on drawing business from all over the province to participate.
Participating producers were hand-selected to take part in the trade show because they had each hit a level of progress in the industry that makes them ready to move to the next level, which includes aspects perhaps the average shopper doesn't think about, like if the product has compliant labeling, for example.
The businesses are also expected to be ready to move product into stores, and for many, there's a blind spot in awareness of the financial ramifications of scaling up. "Being a processor is the very definition of being nickel and dimed to death," says Gray-Grant. "Everywhere you turn you have to pay money for something."
So many vendors show up with their coolers or boxes full of products "with stars in their eyes" at their local farmers' market, with no real sense of how much it costs to amp up production, and what that does to their retail cost. Gray-Grant says the number one mistake that food producers make is not factoring in a true labour cost. A $10 jar of jam suddenly becomes a $12 jar of jam when all the costs get factored in. "Who will pay $12 for a jar of jam?" is something Gray-Grant presses the hypothetical food maker to ask.
Gray-Grant has coached over 300 food companies in B.C. so far, and in her own career trajectory has been behind a food brand of her own, as well as on the sales side, launching products in all sections of the grocery store, making her no stranger to the struggles of being a food producer.
Through Good to Grow and now with From the Ground Up, Gray-Grant is excited to be a further link between producers and buyers across B.C. The timing is ideal, says Gray-Grant, because there seems to be a broad interest from the consumer side in supporting local vendors, and many grocery stores, including big box ones, are making strides to find room on their shelves for local products, and to shine a spotlight on them.
Putting on the From the Ground Up trade show wasn't a solo effort, and Gray-Grant says she's grateful to conduits in the B.C. food community like Piquant Marketing's Lindsay O'Donnell for bringing food producers on board, and supporters like Vancity who have been instrumental getting behind local food through various programs they offer.
Having been on the scene for over 25 years, Gray-Grant has witnessed lots of changes in the food retail space, but even just the shifts that a business like Vancity has made to include food in their focus is impressive and encouraging. Gray-Grant also points to industry leaders like SPUD, the grocery delivery service, who help drive consumer interest in local products.
The food retail space is, acknowledges Gray-Grant, a noisy one. Consumers are faced with a staggering amount of choices, and food producers don't get "trained up" by buyers. From the Ground Up is a way to "cut through the noise," says Gray-Grant. In turn, the nourishment Gray-Grant, her business, and the new trade show can offer food producers will lead to actual nourishment for people in Vancouver and around the province.