‘Resiliency’ the Watchword of 2022 Expo East

Sessions also emphasize importance of shareholders working together to advance natural/organic
Bridget Goldschmidt
Managing Editor
Bridget Headshot
"State of Natural and Organic" Panel
"State of Natural and Organic" keynote session, L-R: Carlotta Mast, New Hope Network; Summer Auerbach, Rainbow Blossom Natural Food Markets; Heather K. Terry, GoodSam; Le'Spencer Walker, Target; and Neda Daneshzadeh, Prelude Growth Partners

The word on the lips of many participants in sessions held during Natural Products Expo East, which took place in Philadelphia Sept. 29-Oct. 1, was “resiliency,” closely followed by an emphasis on natural/organic shareholders collaborating to further the industry and its sustainability goals.

The tone was set at the keynote “State of Natural and Organic” session on Oct. 29, where Carlotta Mast, SVP of New Hope Network, identified resiliency as being key to industry success and called on all natural/organic suppliers and purveyors to “make health, joy and justice a reality for all people.”

What contributes to that resiliency? The answer, according to the panel assembled for the session, is partnerships, with Le’Spencer Walker, director, merchandising vendor development at Target, stressing that diversity, with its multiplicity of views and life experiences, gives the industry more ways to deal with challenges, as well as greater access to innovative and unique products.

As for how retailers are tapping into resiliency, Summer Auerbach, second-generation owner of Rainbow Blossom Natural Food Markets, in Louisville, Ky., which was roiled by social unrest in the wake of the killing of Breonna Taylor, spoke about how her independent five-store operation is dealing with the aftermath of that event, as well as the labor crisis. The grocer’s strategic theme for 2022, “We’re Glad You’re Here,” aims to place staff appreciation and customer service front and center, cementing the stores’ connection to the communities they serves.

The discussion led Mast to assert that “partnerships will be the fuel” to propel the industry forward, as long as shareholders were “leading with love.”

According to statistics presented by Nick McCoy, of Whipstitch Capital, and Kathryn Peters, of SPINS, during the session, the U.S. natural and organic products industry is poised to hit $300 billion in sales by 2023, with COVID-influenced growth expected to continue, given the lasting ways that the pandemic changed customer behaviors, and the new customers who started buying natural and organic products. In fact, across all brick-and-mortar retail channels, natural products are driving growth.

The session also pointed out the importance of an omnichannel strategy to grow business as online sales growth returns to pre-COVID levels, especially since natural products shoppers buy online at nearly twice the rate of all shoppers.

Amid an economic downturn and high inflation, the presenters urged retailers to strategically benchmark one to three key competitors and offer easy solutions to keep consumers coming in often, understand their shoppers’ most frequent needs and preferences, and clarify their goals by category: which are margin and which maximize share.

An emerging trend noted by Mast, McCoy and Peters was that in addition to physical wellness, consumers were growing more interested in products addressing mental well-being, especially with regard to alleviating stress and anxiety/depression. This they attributed to economic forces and a shift toward greater self-awareness.

Hot Trends in Organic Retail Panel
"Hot Trends in Organic Retail" panel, L-R: Nancy Coulter-Parker, New Hope Network; Jeff Crumpton, SPINS; Mark Squire, Good Earth; Patrick Sheridan, INFRA; and Erin Harper, Whole Foods Market

That’s Hot

During a “Hot Trends in Organic Retail” session also held on Sept. 29, panel members stressed the importance of educating younger generations on the meaning and importance of organic, and how the terms “organic” and “regenerative” should always be used together to accentuate their interconnectedness.

Mark Squire, operator of Good Earth, which has two stores in the Bay Area, also noted that 25% of his business is foodservice, which he said was typical for many retailers, and that the retail sector “needs to take responsibility for the [organic] integrity” of that category.

As to the issue of organic certification for retailers, the panel agreed that many hadn’t adopted it because of confusion about what it entailed, and that clearly defining retail standards would help in this area, as well as enable retailers to help consumers better understand organics.

In response to an audience question, Erin Harper, of Whole Foods Market, observed that investment in BIPOC (Back, Indigenous, and Other People of Color) brands was crucial to furthering natural/organic, noting that smaller retailers were uniquely situated in that regard, as they had a greater ability to work on a local level.

Even in a panel that wasn’t specifically retail-focused, such as the Sept. 30 “From Plant-Based to Pastured Meat: Exploring the Question of What Makes a Food Climate Friendly,” the focus was on partnerships to move the needle on biodiversity and restoring natural ecosystems around the world.

As Julia Collins, founder and CEO of Planet FWD and creator of Moonshot Snacks, pointed out, the basic complexity of food meant that there’s “no silver bullet” to healing the planet or making people healthier, but rather a range of possible options. Some ways to achieve this, she noted, are for citizens to vote to further policies that address climate change, and for supply chain members – even direct competitors – to collaborate on solutions. “It’s not just about one brand,” she explained. “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

For her part, Megan Meiklejohn, SVP, supply chain innovation for the Land to Market program of the Savory Institute, rejected what she called the “plant versus meat conversation,” asserting that “the animal is the solution,” as grazing animals and grasslands co-evolve in a symbiotic relationship. “Food isn’t going to fix the climate crisis,” she admitted, but added that it could contribute to diversity and help people live better.

Marion Nestle
Marion Nestle speaks during the Sustainability Summit at Natural Products Expo East.

The Politics of Food

The Sept. 30 Sustainability Summit included a panel on food loss and food waste, moderated by Jen Ladd, food reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where the members, all of whom were involved in organizations addressing this crucial issue, stressed the importance of disrupting the current system to get food that would otherwise go to waste to food-insecure populations, and how they were working with CPG brands, farmers, retailers and restaurants to make that happen.

A one-on-one interview that Danielle Nierenberg, co-founder of Food Tank, one of Expo East’s show partners, conducted with famed academic and food activist Marion Nestle focused on the politics of food, with Nestle asserting that anyone who starts a healthy, regenerative food brand was engaged in a political attack on the current food system, “whether they know it or not.” She also noted, however, that food is a “bipartisan” issue that brings people together, since “everyone eats.”

Like Collins in the earlier “From Plant-Based to Cultured Meat” session, Nestle advised getting involved in the political process, but went even further, urging people to run for office to champion laws that would change the current food system to help people. She also cited the importance of groups working together to further their political aims and effect change, and persistence in the face of obstacles.

As for her impressions of Expo East, Nestle was impressed by the number of regenerative and upcycled products on display, as well as the recognition that food waste is a “shameful” problem.

Expo East Show Floor
The hot products section of the Natural Products Expo East show floor

Seen at the Show

Walking the aisles of Natural Products Expo East, which this year welcomed 1,267 exhibitors and for the first time was a Carbon Neutral Certified event, Progressive Grocer came upon many interesting new products that are sure to generate buzz in the months ahead.

Among those products were Scott’s Protein Balls; Atlantic Sea Farm’s Sea-Veggie Burgers; the unexpected Asian-inspired flavors of Pocket Latte’s nuts; Cleveland Kitchen’s Pickle Chips; Chick Ease’s saucy not dried snackable chickpeas; new pre-seasoned chicken items from Farmer Focus in Caribbean Jerk, Black Garlic Ginger and Honey Jalapeño flavors; Little Northern Bakehouse Sweet Hawaiian Wide Slice bread; Evolved Chocolate with protein; Oat Haus Granola Butter; chewy, creamy Nada Moo! frozen snacks; Oddlygood’s melty plant-based grilled cheese; Macalat sweet dark chocolate; Armazen Açai sorbet; Afar’s savory Japanese Miso protein bar; Art of Green’s new disinfectant line consisting of wipes and sprays, and its liquid detergent line extension in Zen Lavender and Free and Clear scents; Chocxo keto chocolate; Naera’s feather-light Icelandic skyr snack; Hungry Planet’s plant-based chicken; Frankie’s Organic Sweet Potato Fries; Krutones Small Batch Pork Rind Croutons; and Meatless Farm’s chicken salad, sausage ravioli and chicken nuggets.

Additionally, a community lunch on Sept. 30 in the vast Grand Hall of the Philadelphia Convention Center for show attendees offered a buffet featuring tasty products from exhibitors Daiya (dairy-free cheese), Kvarøy Arctic (salmon hot dogs), The Very Good Butchers (meatless patties) and Thor’s Skyr.

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