I poured some locally-sourced, organic spirits out recently for the Natural Products Expo East. Don’t get me wrong, the show’s not dying, just moving away from Baltimore and I’m more than a little sad about that.
It was the first show I went to as an official Kapowzian back in 2016. I wore a suit and pounded the pavement hard for three days meeting emerging brands that were trying to carve out an even more fractured niche industry of natural and organic products. I sampled cookies made from crickets or beans, tried on some masks to promote a sparkling water brand, and eagerly walked the show-floor looking for new clients and partners.
Now here we are, three years later, a little older and wiser, and I had an absolute blast knocking around the new and emerging brands at the Hot Products Pavilion. BBJ already did the best write-up of the event possible here and here, so what am I to write? Oh right, of course, something to prove that this was more than just a chance to eat some tasty food and bring home a plethora of samples: a top twelve list of my favorite brands!
But, yes, full disclosure, definitely ate some tasty food and brought home a TON of samples.
As a creative agency obsessed with working with challenger brands, newcomers, and interesting groups, I walked the show floor looking for things that caught my attention; not just what the swag available was or how big of a sample was offered. And it’s within that vein, that I bring you this following list of twelve brands I loved this year on display at National Products Expo East.
Special shout-outs of course to the MD companies I ran into throughout my two-days at the show: Highlandtown’s own Really Raw Honey, Michele’s Granola, Zest Tea, Wild Kombucha, and of course, from hailing from Dorchester County, Rise Up Coffee!
Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout-out to Whitebox, our eCommerce automation brother-from-another-mother.
Without further adieu, here’s my top twelve from National Products Expo East
On the surface, this chocolate bar looks like just any other brightly covered candy bar, complete with a gigantic name, a listing for what percentage of chocolate is in the bar, and a logo calling out their mission to eliminate slavery.
Did you catch that?
Yep, Tony’s Chocolonely has an ambitious goal and does so in such a smart way that I couldn’t help but include them on this list. Want to learn how to support their mission of a 100% slavery-free global chocolate trade? Hit them here and buy a bar today!
Mason Dixie Biscuit Co.
Growing up in the midwest has taught me two things: there are 5 versions of winter and I’m a sucker for all things bread.
Mostly the second part, and also because I had the opportunity to meet Mason Dixie Biscuit Co.’s awesome founder, Ayeshah Abuelhiga at an event hosted by Chobani’s Incubator group. I got pitched the best biscuit by Ayeshah and her team at the event and knew I had to see if they could back up the claim. Going up the escalator to the Hot Products Pavilion, you were instinctively drawn to their booth: complete with a bright backdrop of pastels, and one employee flipping pre-cooked sausages on a hot plate. I got my first biscuit sandwich and quickly followed that up with a second before realizing just true their claim was. Delicious biscuits tied with clear, bold packaging?
Winner winner, chicken dinner!
This one’s a good follow-up to the last one; us midwesterners root for other midwesterners. It’s in our blood to be polite, probably due to the proximity to Canada.
When I met Pop Daddy, I had no idea they were also from Michigan (where I hail from). All I cared about was how bold their packaging was and what exactly a red kernel of corn would produce: the answer was deliciousness.
Boasting fully organic popcorn and pretzel stick products, Pop Daddy had me sold with the two samples instantly I tried, Garlic and Butter. Plus, they were just nice guys.
If you’ve paid attention to any of our previous articles on the BBJ, you know we made it out to SXSW in 2017 and 2018. It was the second year of attending that show that I first tried myself a Coolhaus Ice Cream sandwich, which delivers some truly unique flavor combinations.
I glommed quickly to the certified woman-owned Coolhaus immediately at this year’s Expo East and can’t divulge just how many samples I tried — It was all of them. Their packaging is a sparkling ray of sunshine from your grocer’s frozen novelties aisle and… listen, If I need to sell you on an ice cream sandwich, I don’t know what to say to you.
New York Mushroom Co.
I had to miss last year’s show but all of the groups I spoke with at this year’s show told me that the hit product from last year was something called Mushroom Jerky, which is exactly what you think it is. Thankfully, no one told New York Mushroom Co. and I am now a true fan of mushroom jerky.
I appreciated their straight-forward packaging, authentic logo, and a highlight of what was key to their product: the all-might mushroom (which tastes delicious). Oh, they also made the jerky resemble mushrooms, which I appreciated as well.
Complete disclosure here, I did record a testimonial in exchange for a shirt.
Gotham Greens/Small Axe Peppers
Do you ever wonder what happened to the produce from all those spaces that popped up in the early aughts’ urban farming boom? Well, look no further. Here are two great groups that seek to capitalize on the trend of knowing exactly where your food came from.
Bad Food Co
Michelle Retik, “Troublebaker” at Bad Food Co. had me at two words: Heck Yeah. The company had a bold presence at Expo East, where they were touting some samples behind their Better and Delicious (Bad) product line. I mean, it’s two fists ya’ll, what’s cooler than that?
Force of Nature Meats
I can now say that I’ve tried an Ancestral Blend of meat. And that’s all thanks to the clean, illustrated backdrop behind the Force of Nature Meats brand. Delicious was my first thought when trying the beef blend including organ meat, the second thought was, hey I need more.
They set their booth up to look like a scene from a serene ranch, an open-field where buffalo and livestock run amok. Champions of a regenerative agriculture movement, this Austin-based company is trying to repair the damage done by other meat producers; something I can certainly support.
Snowing in Space Coffee Co.
Emblazoned with stylized Vikings, rainbows, and sparkly-foil on nearly every surface, Snowing in Space was one of the oddest sites during my Expo East journey; but dammit if that nitro cold-brew coffee wasn’t magnificent. The brand is loud, the flavors intense, and I loved every minute of it.
Party on you space-faring Vikings, party on.
I’m a big fan of pizza.
It’s troubling the amount of pizza I can put away in a given month. That’s why I — along with my gastroenterologist — was thrilled to see so many alternative pizza dough companies at Expo East this year. One that really got me excited to meet was Cappello’s. Their entire booth was an extension of the black and white geometric pattern that adorns their website and packaging. On top of that, they put together an entire newspaper-style brochure printed on ACTUAL NEWSPRINT.
And, to top it all off, their almond-flour offerings tasted really good. Give them a shot next time you’re at the store.
Colorful, clean, and featuring a bear with a strategically placed leaf made me stop in my tracks for Bear Nibbles; that, and the fact that they had fake grass to stand on. This brand was one of the best uses of negative space and color I saw on the entire show floor of Expo East.
The brand was playful but not pandering, and their fruit and veg-forward snacks were absolutely delicious.
The only regret I have, I think I missed when a bear showed up to the booth.
The Smart Co.
One of the newest of Hot Products to hit the Expo East was the Smart Co.’s Smart Tart. I had a great chance to speak to the co-founders during my time at the event, and really dug their mission: trying to provide healthier, more nutritious alternatives to time-tested food favorites; including their first product which is essentially a more, grown-up, delicious PopTart.
Excited to see where they take this clean brand moving forward, even more, excited to walk away with a full pack of their toaster pastries.
Special Judges Award: Moon Cheese
(Dan insisted on writing this part because of his deep love for the Moon Cheese.)
There hasn’t been one Kapowza set without Moon Cheese. Originally found in Starbucks, the cheese, cracker-like, snack is a favorite of both the office and the film set. We like it for both its lack of carbs and its flavor. If you haven’t tried it, do yourself a favor. Take a trip to the moon: https://mooncheese.com/