Expo West: Showcase for Innovation and Passion

Jim Dudlicek
Editorial Director
Produce case at Bristol Farms in Woodland Hills, Calif.

I’m always blown away by my visits to Natural Products Expo West every year in early March.

It’s not just all the companies that exhibit there – this year, more than 3,500 showcasing their wares at the Anaheim Convention Center. And it’s not just the people who attend – this year, more than 85,000 who passed through the annual expo right across the street from Disneyland in Southern California.

What impresses me most of all is the passion that drives the innovation on display there.

Certainly, most successful businesses are driven by a certain level of passion on the part of their creators. But in the natural and organic space, that passion seems to hit a whole other level, one that’s more about changing the world than merely selling the next big tasty food product.

And there was never a better time in history for that passion to take flight, as so many consumers share these folks’ interest in and commitment to cleaner eating and better stewardship of natural resources.

My visit to Expo West this year actually began a couple of days earlier and a few dozen miles away at grocery chain Bristol Farms’ newest store in the Los Angeles community of Woodland Hills (watch for a feature about this store in an upcoming issue of Progressive Grocer).

The store is designed around a “food hall” layout showcasing several fresh prepared concepts, enhanced natural and organic offerings, and a bounty of local products. In fact, the retailer acts as a product incubator of sorts, working with local purveyors to guide them along a path that may ultimately take their wares from Bristol Farms exclusives to items widely available at larger regional or even national retailers.

“You walk in, and all you’re hit with is fresh,” said Store Director Ali Dungarwalla, describing his store as a “theater of food.”

PG editors Jim Dudlicek and Katie Martin with Jaden and Will Smith

Ali’s passion for serving his shoppers was palpable, as was that of Jaden Smith, the 19-year-old actor whose concern for the environment at age 11 led to the creation of Just Water, a drinking water brand dedicated to responsible sourcing, sustainable packaging and community building.

My colleague Katie Martin and I had the opportunity during Expo West to sit and chat with Jaden and his father, the movie star Will Smith, about their involvement with the brand (among a host of other celebrities and like-minded supporters) and the rollout at the expo of Just Water’s new line of fruit-infused waters in recyclable paperboard packaging.

It began eight years ago, when Jaden was compelled to make a better connection with the environment after finding, during a surfing lesson, a plastic bottle that someone had tossed into the ocean.

“It’s all about the bigger picture of recycling,” Jaden said. “It’s not all about the bottle – it’s about the message behind it.” Added dad Will: “It’s a company born from an 11-year-old’s desire to protect his friend, the ocean.”

I felt similar passion in speaking to so many folks at Expo West. There’s Angela Mavridis, founder of Tribali Foods, who, after 35 years as a vegetarian, rediscovered the health benefits of meat and launched a line of seasoned grass-fed burgers and organic chicken patties for the freezer case, to make the segment more convenient and accessible to a wider audience.

“I’d say it’s the new superfood,” Angela said of what she expects to be a “movement in better-for-you meat.”

Likewise, passion drove Joe Carr and Serenity Heegel to create Serenity Kids, a line of meat-based pouched baby foods that they say are better and more protein-rich than the  sugar-laced fruit purees dominating the baby food aisle.

Passion for good, healthy food drives Emily Hewett, Chobani’s corporate chef, to create innovative recipes that showcase the company’s Greek yogurt – and the company itself for creating an incubator to nurture budding product concepts.

Big companies are turning their passions toward wellness and transparency in greater numbers – giants like Frito-Lay, whose leaders shared some of their pipeline products with the PG team, including Imagine Yogurt Crisps, a healthy and convenient snack aimed at busy Millennial families, confirming that on-the-go goes hand in hand with health and wellness.

Conagra Brands is acquiring smaller brands to leverage the passion of such entrepreneurs as Angie Bastian, founder of BoomChickaPop, whose excitement for snacks that are healthy and tasty in diverse flavor profiles is helping drive the ready-to-eat popcorn category, expected to grow 8 percent over the next five years.

“They’re putting resources behind us and letting us continue to create,” Angie told me. “We’re learning from them, and they’re learning from us.”

There were many other similar stories I don’t have time to share here, and others I didn’t have time to discover, because Expo West is just so massive.

But the experience demonstrated that passion is indeed alive and well in the food industry, with so many startups and smaller enterprises, as well as bigger companies who recognize the value of stoking those creative fires.

More and more, consumers are showing loyalty to companies that are about more than just selling. Retailers, embrace and showcase these passionate players, and watch those basket rings rise.

Check out these and other stories in our event coverage on Facebook and on Twitter at @pgrocer and @jimdudlicek.

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