Like any small food business, I am asking myself the question: “When is it the right time to exhibit at the Fancy Food Show?” The show is such a HUGE thing that you may think that it must guarantee to be discovered by many retailers and distributors.
I read several articles about people’s experiences at the Winter or Summer Fancy Food Show. I also interacted with the Specialty Food Association (the organizer) when I submitted products to a SOFI award this year, and attended two Fancy Food Shows (and a lot of shows in other industries).
From that experience, here are six critical things that I believe a small food business MUST have/have done before exhibiting at one of these shows:
- You must have previously attended one of those shows, to understand how huge they are, who is exhibiting, how companies are displaying and sampling their products, who gets noticed or not. That is a great way to realize that attendees can’t stop at every booth and test every product. Later, as an exhibitor, you will need to reach attendees before the show, to make sure they come to YOUR booth!
- You must have demonstrated that your product has the potential for growth. If you are selling only locally and have never sold to other neighboring states, you don’t really know if customers like your product because they like local products, or if you have a great product. So you don’t know your potential for growth. Buyers at the Fancy Food Show will also realize that you don’t have a broad enough retailer base. In this case, your priority should be to expand your footprint beyond your state and exhibit at regional events first.
- You must have a clear goal for exhibiting at that show, and that goal must align with your growth plan. Is your objective to self-distribute your food product in a specific region, to get distributors, to export, to grow your online sales, to get into Whole Foods, to sell on online stores like William Sonoma or Igourmet, or maybe to be noticed and published by food bloggers or national magazines? As you answer those questions, you may realize that exhibiting is the best use of your limited financial resources or that this show is not the best show for you.
- You must have the capacity to manufacture several times more than you currently do. Talk to past exhibitors to understand what kind of sales increase they experienced after exhibiting. If you make your products in your home kitchen and have no room to grow, or you are at full capacity at a shared kitchen, it is clear that you need a plan to handle larger volumes, before you consider spending thousands of dollars on exhibiting. It might seem obvious, but I have heard of people who were exhibitors and won SOFI awards and did not know where they would manufacture. One caramel maker who won a SOFI award was even struggling to produce enough products for the show itself, let alone future orders.
- You must have $8,000 to $10,000 in your marketing budget to spend on that show. Exhibiting at the show is indeed expensive. You can refer to the 2015 article written by the maker of Green Mountain Mustard, My Experience at the Summer Fancy Food Show (numbers inside!). In reality, the question is two-fold: do you have those funds in your budget, AND is it the best use of them this year? If you have to drain your last penny to exhibit at the show, it doesn’t seem like a smart move!
- You must have the human resources to prepare well for the show, to man the booth, and to appropriately follow-up with leads after the show. Everyone will tell you that the success of exhibiting at any trade show is to be well prepared. You’ll need to:
- Work with designers and printers to design, produce and pack the booth and printed materials;
- Work with the Specialty Food Association to order electricity, furniture, carpet, organize shipping, etc.;
- Reach out to buyers, your customers, and the media, to make sure they are aware that you’re exhibiting and set up meetings with them in advance for better success;
- Have enough people to staff the booth, so you don’t miss critical discussions (most exhibitors feel that you need 2-3 people).
- Follow-up on leads after the show. I have seen too many exhibitors attending shows and then not following up on leads afterward, due to lack of time and other priorities. What a waste of money, that is!
So what are WE doing this year (2017)?
As you know, we are running a small food business, Cheese Companion, ourselves.
(2020 update: we have now closed that business and moved back to Canada. We are helping small food businesses).
Our marketing budget is $7,500 to $10,000 a year, and we are working solo with no employee. We are in stores throughout New England. So we cannot answer “yes” to all the questions above: we won’t be exhibiting at the Summer Fancy Food Show. However, we submitted some products for SOFI awards, and we are attending the show for the 2nd year in a row. It’s fun to live the experience, and it is an excellent opportunity to learn about new products, to connect with suppliers and potential partners (at Cheese Companion, we do a lot of co-promotion with Vermont cheesemakers).
What about you? Have you exhibited, or are you considering it? What are your thoughts about it? We’d love you to comment. Such feedback is so valuable for every small food business out there.
Further reading: 17 Tips for a Successful Fancy Food Show