Catalina “Chiqui” Berg of Pengilly, Minn., makes delicious caramels and chocolate candies for a loyal group of online customers and candy stores. The Colombia native knows how to satisfy a sweet tooth.
Tom Smude, a farmer from Pierz, Minn., started out growing a few acres of soil-replenishing sunflowers in place of corn and soybeans in 2007. He has since built a processing-and-bottling plant to produce heart-healthy oil from 600-plus acres he plants or contracts for annually. The operation is pressed to meet demand from restaurants and grocery stores.
Will that be a 6-ounce bottle or 250-gallon tote of “cold-pressed” sunflower oil?
Both were at Midwest Pantry’s Spring Local Food & Gift Show last week at the Grain Belt Bottling House in northeast Minneapolis.
Berg and Smude are part of the burgeoning “locally grown” food movement that stresses healthy, real ingredients. It is the niche-company growth engine of the otherwise stagnant food industry. It has the likes of General Mills buying in or trying to create boutiques that operate like small independents, similar to the raging “microbreweries.”
And the likes of Wal-Mart, Target, Supervalu, Kowalski’s and other regional and national peddlers are clearing valuable shelf space for “local” foods because, if they’re made within the state or 100 miles, they make the cash registers ring louder.
“Many buyers are willing to pay a premium for local food, and large grocers are taking note,” consulting firm A.T. Kearney said in a recent report that noted that big-box and national chains rank low among consumers for “trustworthiness.”
The big companies are interested because local goods generate consumer goodwill and command higher-margin prices.
This is not news to Zoie Glass and Chad Gillard, co-founders of seven-year-old Midwest Pantry, an outfit formed to help small Midwestern food companies grow through trade shows that link store buyers with food producers, offer educational forums on licensing, insurance, marketing and provide exposure like the Minnesota Cup entrepreneurial sweepstakes.
“We’re turning people down to get in here,” said Glass of last week’s food and gift show. “We connect them to buyers. We want to organize the producers and vendors. Farmers markets aren’t organized for corporate buyers. But 10 percent shelf space at a store reserved for local vendors has a huge impact on the local economy.”
Glass also is the owner of Lucille’s Kitchen Garden of St. Paul, maker of a variety of Minnesota-made jams and jellies.
Gillard is a veteran marketer who loved Lucille’s jams when he met Glass at the Mill City Farmers Market in 2003. Gillard and Glass found that a common lament among small Minnesota food companies was that big East Coast and West Coast food shows, which can cost up to $10,000 for a booth plus accommodations and travel, were too costly.
Glass and Gillard learned from the high-end annual Minnesota Monthly Food & Wine Experience. But they failed to get that weekend exhibit to sponsor an extra day for food only. So, they started their own gig, Midwest Pantry.
Compared with the cost of a trip to either coast, most vendors can display their wares through Midwest Pantry for less than $1,000, including a $350 or $450 booth, online marketing and access to related forums and resources.
Joe Moore, a buyer at Kowalski’s supermarkets, said Midwest Pantry provides easy, local access to a bevy of local food producers.
“It’s an opportunity for these smaller manufacturers,” Moore said. “To be able to go booth to booth under one roof, meet the manufacturers and have an opportunity to possibly support them … is what we’re looking for. It’s nice to have something locally focused.”
Kowalski’s has struck deals with several Midwest Pantry participants, including Lucille’s and Red Table Meat Co., which it is introducing through its Woodbury store. The specialty meat producer in northeast Minneapolis was started by Mike Phillips, who grew up on a small farm and buys directly from small farmers who eschew industrial farming and fattening pigs in the shortest amount of time.
Gillard, who has no plans to quit his day job, said the goal of Midwest Pantry is to further position Minnesota as the homegrown-food capital of the Midwest and “double the value of our booth [to the vendors] without raising the price.”
“This was our second show and there were a lot more buyers this year,” Berg said last week after her 3 ½-hour return trip to Pengilly. “I like the show because there are lots of people to meet and one buyer placed a good order with me. Right on the spot.”
“It’s a self-fund hobby,” quipped her husband, Bart, a retired truck salesman who handles the back office and reports to CEO Chiqui. “I made a lot of money selling trucks on the Iron Range for 43 years.”