Why ‘Big Food’ — ’Big CPG’— Needs Expo West

I attended my first Expo West show in sunny Southern California a little over three decades ago. I loved it. I got to indulge my bohemian side and make dozens of new contacts, while at the same time honing my sales, marketing and negotiation chops in a new environment. And I got to learn—a lot.

A few things I recall clearly from that first show: Not a single man was wearing a business suit on the exhibit floor (we’re not at FMI anymore Toto), nor was there a pantsuit-clad woman present; the phrase “the conventional side of the industry” was generally uttered with disdain; nutritional supplements not food products dominated the show floor; and few if any big consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies and executives were in attendance. Counter-culture baby.

A Shift in the 1990s

My latter observation about “Big CPG” held true until the mid-to-late 1990s, when the suits started showing up. No pantsuits though, at least that I can recall. The big packaged goods companies and execs—and conventional food retailers—were starting to attend Expo West in numbers significant enough to be noticable by then.

Acquisitions of popular natural and organic brands—Celestial Seasonings by Hain (that’s how the Celestial got in Hain-Celestial), Muir Glen and Cascadian Farms by General Mills, plus some others—had or were taking place. Supermarket chains, those retail standard bearers of “the conventional side of the industry,” were wading deeper into natural and organic, and consumers were in a far more natural (and organic) state of mind than at anytime previously. The disdain level had diminished significantly too, when the phrase “the conventional side of the industry” was used.

One thing that didn’t change: The hotel bars were just as full as in the past after the exhibit floor was closed for the day. Expo West is known for its lively after-show libation activity to this very day.

21rst Century Organic

Fast-forward to today: Expo West has not only become a mainstream show—with a slight counter-culture edge—it’s arguably, along with its east coast twin in the winter, the most important food show in America.

When it comes to innovation, new products and concepts, trends and more, it all happens in spades at Expo. In fact, Expo West has, for all intents and purposes, become a multi-day innovation lab for the consumer products industry and food retailers.

The Gospel According to John

While outlining this piece, I decided to check my Twitter feed and see if anything interesting regarding Expo West might show up. The very first Tweet that popped up was from John Foraker, the president of General Mills-owned natural and organic products' powerhouse brand Annie’s Homegrown.

In his Tweet, Foraker noted he’s attended about twenty Expo West shows—my approximate show count, give or take a few—and that they keep getting bigger, better and more important.

Fits my thesis, I thought, so I fired off a Twitter message to John, who in addition to heading-up fast-growing Annie’s, plays a major role in General Mills' overall natural and organic brand operation (approaching $1 billion in annual sales), and in the big packaged foods company’s investment and brand aquisition process. He’s also an early-stage investor in innovative packaged foods startups in his own rite.

Since selling Annie’s to General Mills last year for over $800 million, Foraker has also taken on the role of being a bridge between emerging natural and organic products companies and General Mills.

This role, in my observation, has evolved out of the honest, sincere and deliberate manner in which he’s explained the General Mills acquisition to many in the industry and to loyal Annie’s customers, many of whom frankly viewed it — and voiced it—as “selling out to big food.” It’s not a view I share.

Here’s the question I posed to the multi-faceted John Foraker: “What are the Top 3 reasons it’s a must for ‘Big CPG' to attend Expo West?”

John’s Foraker’s ‘top 3' list:

1. So you can see face to face the brands of tomorrow that are in the process of disrupting yours, whether you know it or not.

2. To get a first-hand look at the latest trends in food flavors, ingredients, packaging, and crazy awesome stuff you think is nuts, but might create the next $500 million category.

3. To hear about major public policy and social impact initiatives like regenerative agriculture from ground zero. These things start here, socialize here, and expand rapidly here, then out to the industry as a whole.

Since I can’t say it any better, I’ll let General Mills' man behind 'Bernie the Bunny’ have the last word, except to say the food and related consumer products industries are changing dramatically. We’ve reached a “tipping point” to cleaner, healthier and more transparent food, drink and personal care products.

“Big CPG” needs all the help it can get. Thankfully, the doctor is in at Expo West. All that’s needed is to make an appointment — then remember to keep it and visit annually.

Victor Martino is a California-based food and grocery industry strategist and consultant. He’s also a writer and entrepreneur.

www.twitter.com/nsfoodsmemo victormartino415@gmail.com

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Victor Martino’s story.