Executive Briefing

Notes from the Food Show

Imagine a Whole Foods where you could sample every single product in the store.

Imagine a Whole Foods where you could sample every single product in the store. That’s the scene at the Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, one of the upscale food industry’s largest and most important annual trade shows, which I attended last week.

Note: This is an alpha test of what would be part of a members-only Executive Briefing email newsletter.

Exhibitors ranged from the largest food companies — General Mills, Conagra Brands (which owns Udi’s Gluten Free and Boom Chicka Pop, as well as, uh, Slim Jim), etc. — to thousands of startups and smaller businesses from around the world. Want to learn more about cooking with algae oil? Or sample multiple dessert-hummus varieties? This is your show.

Natural Products Expo West

CBD, the non-psychoactive cannabis chemical, seemed like it was everywhere, even though it’s still very much on the fringes without any mainstream brand or mass retail adoption.

  • This was my first time at the show, so I can’t compare it to last year, but a wide spectrum of the CBD industry was on display, from the companies that cultivate hemp and supply CBD extracts to the companies selling lotions and edibles.
  • I remain skeptical of CBD’s supposed benefits — I sampled a not-yet-on-the-market CBD gummy and can’t say with confidence that it relaxed me beyond a placebo — but it’s clear this is still the beginning of the craze.

More than once, I heard a seltzer-company rep say something about beating LaCroix with things like more robust flavors, lower prices, zero- or low-calorie sweetness, etc.

  • We’ll see about that. But you can’t pretend that LaCroix isn’t vulnerable, and its founder/CEO Nick Caporella isn’t doing himself any favors, bizarrely comparing brand management to “caring for someone who becomes handicapped” in the company’s last earnings release.
  • Meanwhile, LaCroix had a large booth in the main hall, where it was serving juice-infused drinks.

Unlike the Consumer Electronics Show, where booth demos are mostly canned and everything good happens in private meetings off the show floor, or South by Southwest, which has turned into spring break for marketers to show off for other marketers, this felt like a real, fast-paced, semi-public game of merchant-vendor networking.

  • It was fun to see entrepreneurs perk up and pay special attention when a Whole Foods rep or a major grocery buyer walked over, seemingly unannounced.

It was refreshing how well the best-designed brands stood out, regardless of their relative size. A big part of consumer retail is looking unique and trustworthy in a sea of chaos, and that goes for trade shows, too. Clean, clear branding and booths that let the products speak for themselves — with accessible, appropriately sized samples, and friendly, knowledgeable reps — made the best impressions.

Four Sigmatic, which makes mushroom-based drinks and beauty products, and Brami, which sells lupini bean snacks (and was showing off a new packaging design), were two smaller standouts.

The most memorable thing I ate, of dozens of samples, was a “chicken chip” from a brand called Wilde.

  • Made with chicken (they wouldn’t explain exactly how) and tapioca flour, these super-thin chips are an interesting alternative to other chips or even pork rinds, with low sugar and high protein.
  • There are a handful of flavors, including barbecue and “chicken and waffles” with a maple syrup note, but the buffalo flavor was my favorite. Just weird enough.
Dan Frommer

Hi, I’m Dan Frommer and this is The New Consumer, a publication about how and why people spend their time and money.

I’m a longtime tech and business journalist, and I’m excited to focus my attention on how technology continues to profoundly change how things are created, experienced, bought, and sold. The New Consumer is a newsletter and website supported entirely by your membership. Thanks in advance.