I’m Simply in Awe of the Fancy Food Show.

The thing that is important to know is you never know. You are always sort of feeling your way.” — Diane Arbus

For the 5th consecutive year, I have attended and analyzed the Fancy Food Show held in San Francisco in January. Attending is easy. What’s not to love about a lot of snack-y samples, getting fresh air in a new city, and, well, San Francisco? But, this year was different for me. This was my 5th year. I should be either an expert in all things food, or bored and looking to move on, or somehow a little of both. I’m not.

As a strategist with over 20 years of experience, in my 5th year of attending and analyzing the Fancy Food Show,

I am naively passionate and enthusiastic in my pursuit of knowledge and data related to what foods may be next on our shelves.

The name Fancy Food Show is really a misnomer. It’s a trade show with a lot of small, startup brands, looking to fill retail shelves at premium price points.

It is also a lot of passionate, sometimes naive, entrepreneurs, sons and daughters of mothers who majored in Home Economics with a delicious food product to offer or recipe to exploit, inventors seeking investors who maybe once found themselves on Shark Tank and now find themselves at the Moscovne Center, and it is the occasional culinary zeitgeist, the brains behind an idea that starts to create a movement. Those folks build the products that become the new kale, cauliflower, cauliflower rice, almond butter, and, well, you get the idea.

It’s a passionate excursion, a forced dizziness from elevated and then plunging blood sugar, and it’s a trove of delectable data: Delicious food forms in mostly aesthetically-pleasing packages, waiting to be discovered and yes, it’s data. That’s where I come in. A creative strategist, with a love for math and an arsenal of insights and brand strategy experience behind me, (also the daughter of a Home Economist, hence my brand name, Home Ec), I walk this show with my fully-charged iPhone and snap, sample, move on. Maybe I chat with a person at a booth, maybe I ask a question, or maybe I don’t even bother. It depends. I trust my gut and my instinct and I’m in immersion mode; assessing my introverted mode and transforming myself to extrovert mode is not so easy. I make notes in my head and in my Moleskine and move on.

What have I learned? What’s the point? What’s my end game? I have learned so much over the past 5 years, but for innovators and marketers and those in the glamorous world of design, I offer 3 distinctive observations:

1. Good Ideas Require Herculean Effort.

The American Dream is alive and well. There are so many ideas in this great country of ours. So many. What separates the ideas from the execution, the what-ifs from the “here it is” is simple: some effort.

Ask anyone at the Fancy Food Show if there was a time period where the idea died, but then somehow someone with passion brought it back to life, or if the idea was snarked upon by a jealous colleague or a tired spouse, and you’ll get an answer as rich as the chocolate drizzle on the Fatty Sundays pretzel rods. But the idea lived. It may be tweaked as packaging solutions demonstrate an increase in cost of including a cellophane window on the structure (but consumers need to see the Sprinkles), or it may get reframed from a Soda to Sparkling (times are tough in soda-land, my friends), but the idea marches forward. Slowly, at times. But it moves on.

If you a brand or a marketer and you profess an aptitude for innovation, you need to put in this effort. Not just write more concepts, or include the word delicious on the front and the side of the package, or make smoothies for your investor meetings. You have to put forth the drive and the motivation and the rolled-up sleeves and formula testing at night in your kitchen and scrolling chat boards and digging in the weeds on which tea, flour, baking soda supplier best meets your needs, much like other innovators and entrepreneurs. Much like those at the Fancy Food Show.

2. Focus is Everything.

Epic is an interesting brand for a former vegetarian to be fascinated with. Bars made from bison meat? Lard for cooking? Bone broth for personal consumption? Okay, so bone broth seems on trend, but what is it about Epic brand that intrigues me so? The nose-to-tail philosophy, regardless of category and store aisles, is compelling. Forget brand blocking (although the packaging is beautiful) and forget the game-y ness of the ingredient list. By focusing so clearly and with such lovely conviction, the brand manages to create an authentic promise that resonates with today’s food trends, while seemingly being open to endless innovation.

It’s true that dietary trends have aided brands like Epic, or ingredient-focused industries. There are more products with coconut than you can count, due largely to the healthy-ish, paleo-ish, high heat withstanding features of coconut oil. Coconut creamers, whipping cream, flakes, oils, waters and bite fill today’s shelves and slip into shoppers’ baskets with ease.

Beans, another foundational and healthy-ish ingredient, have spawned a range of chips, crisps, bars or simply roasted products. An industry based on the most musical of fruits, one might say.

Rice, a staple at Lundberg Family Farms, has, dare I say, transformed the rice cake category and my own pantry with their incredibly tasty and delicious Thin Stackers rice based crackers. A healthy snack that you may actually crave, or serve a sandwich on. Two occasions in one!

The list goes on.

Taking a healthy food ingredient and transforming it into the central focus for a product line up can be a foundational means of getting that coveted healthy halo. The halo consumers look for when shopping for snacks, and hopefully makes that product the one that they grab for when at the shelf.

For those seeking to innovate in their own brands, what’s the nose-to-tail of your primary ingredient? How can you push, pull and stretch, regardless of category, regardless of store aisle. Imagine your limitless possibilities, based on a limited item.

3. Have Fun.

Fatty Sundays is a counter-trend item really. A chocolate covered pretzel (with sprinkles and flavors galore) with the word “fat” in the name. But it’s delicious, it harkens to a story of family moments together on Sundays, and with a Good Morning America appearance behind it, it is going for the brass ring. Smiling, self-assured and ready to share, I found their booth one of the more memorable products sampled at the Winter Fancy Food Show, if only because the people seemed to have fun and not take themselves too seriously, all while putting out a good effort and selling to whoever would listen.

Jelly Belly practically has fun in its name, and the sampling they conduct at the Fancy Food Show is always memorable. A sampling of hot sauce, beer-flavored, champagne-tinged or emoji decorated beans have all been seen over the past 5 years. In addition, characters and games of chance add to the experience of the show for many participants, and the booth becomes a destination if only to see what they’ll come up with next.

It’s okay to have fun, or to give permissions for consumers to enjoy themselves.

Even business travel, such as traveling to San Francisco from Cincinnati should be fun. My trip this year was memorable not only for the Fancy Food Show, but also for the bike ride through Golden Gate Park, the afternoon at the newly opened SFMOMA with an inspiring Diane Arbus exhibit among others, and the trip to the farm-to-table mecca, Chez Panisse. By letting go, and taking time to enjoy what’s around me, inspiration and ideas began to flow.

Do one thing, do it well and you will make money!” –Liza Deyrmenjian, Editor, Forbes/ Entrepreneurs, January 2017

Thank you for sharing my personal enthusiasm in all things Fancy Food. I hope this inspiration gives you some new ideas, and maybe helps you think about your brand or assignments just a bit differently, or gives you insight into my way of thinking.

I know it’s a lot to take in, but please contact me if you’d like to talk more. There’s lots more where this came from, and I love to take my perspective and apply it to challenges!

sharon.mccafferty@homeecconsulting.com