Roger McGrady, director of sales and marketing for Jer-N-Al's Barbecue Sauce, stacks bottles of the sauce on a shelf at The Meat Market in north Clovis. Photo by David Castellon
Written by David Castellon
In the Central Valley, an important element to farming is growing relationships.
That includes letting the people who buy your goods understand that you work hard to produce quality products, and to let them know what drives that desire, said Mai Thao, whose family owns and runs Thao Farms in southwest Fresno.
The business, started by per parents in 1989 — not long after they emigrated to the U.S. from their native Laos — grows about 200 varieties of vegetables and herbs sold at swap meets locally and supplied to dozens of restaurants in Southern California.
Now, Thao farms is looking to grow, and as Mai sees it, an ideal way to do that is to be one of the food-industry vendors exhibiting their products at this year’s Fresno Food Expo, which starts today and runs through Thursday at the Fresno Convention Center.
Organizers expect to have 135 to 140 exhibitors from small to large food industry businesses on hand looking to forge relationships with the estimated 800 food product buyers from across the U.S. and other countries.
For Thao Farms and other first-time exhibitors, the Expo is their first chance to show the products they grow or manufacture on a large stage that could elevate them from being on local store shelves or swap meets to landing in big store chains and restaurants across California and possibly the world.
“We’re just a small, family-operated farm. We never really explored outside of the farmers markets that we do,” but there is something comfortable about showing Thao Farms’ product in a place where buyers can be met face to face, as that is how a lot of deals on the farm are made, said Mai, who has no formal title in her family’s business.
Plus that personal contact will allow her family to share its story with potential buyers,
“It’s important to get our story out there,” she explained. “We’re just a small family farm, and I think with all the work and hardships we overcame, we think it adds a lot of value to what we do.”
For Mallvinder Kahal, this isn’t the first time his family business, Kahal Farms, has been to the Expo, but in the past it went to find buyers of the almonds it grows in Madera and Merced counties.
This year, the company has ventured into new territory, producing its own all-natural “Better Butter” almond butter that up until now has been sold primarily online at Amazon.com.
Kahal, who is operational manager of the farming business and CEO of Better Butter — who developed the almond butter recipe with his sister — said “This is our first foray into any sales business, and this is the first in food,” as growers don’t normally handle the sales end of the business.
“We’re coming into it green.”
As for being at the Food Expo, he said, “We’re excited to learn, and we are scared of any missteps, and we are nervous because we’re stepping into a big pool of [buyers] with all kinds of different experience.”
He compared the experience to his days playing high school football: “I know I’m prepared, but there is this level of nervousness until we step out and do that first play of the game.”
Elizabeth Manuele, manager of the Naked Nut, a seller of nuts and dry-fruit products and gift sets in Visalia, said this year’s Expo represents a role change, too, as her company usually is there looking for products to buy and put into gift baskets.
But new owner Benjamin King, whose main business, Pacific Grove Agriculture, is California’s largest producer of pecans, is looking to mass produce candied nuts and nut butters, so the company will be looking for business contacts and buyers for those new products, she said.
Manuele said The Naked Nut is looking to put products in small stores and big chains, as well as looking to make connections with corporations that might buy gift baskets to give as presents.
“We’re just looking to gain some more customers — see what kinds of options we have,” said Manuele, adding that preparations for next week’s event have been hectic, particularly “preparing and educating ourselves on our own products — the ingredients and nutritional information, so we can answer questions while we are there.”
Of course, being at the Fresno Food Expo can have particularly strong effects on small business operators, Nubchi Thao of Fresno among them.
The stay-at-home mother has been operating her own business, The Brioche Lady, since the fall of 2015, baking the French pastry in her home kitchen and selling it at swap meets.
The product is based on a recipe her sister, who lives in France, gave her, but Thao tweaked it by adding fruit filings and cream cheese.
For her part, Thao said her goal at the Expo is meeting fellow food makers and hearing their stories, “just to keep me going, I guess.”
She said her husband, a physician, is hoping to make contacts and get advice to help the family’s long-term goal of opening one or more specialty bake shops and possibly mass produce brioche to sell in stores.
For Roger McGrady, this will be a return to the Expo since parting ways a few years ago with Jer-N-Al’s Barbecue Sauce and being asked to come back recently to “jump start” the business.
McGrady, the Fresno company’s business development and sales manager, said the sauce business is on the upswing, having found a places on Vons and Save Mart grocery store shelves, but being an exhibitor at the Expo is part of his plan to further grow sales.
“I could see it was well attended, and there was a lot of enthusiasm for products that were local, and it was a great way to get it exposed,” he said, noting that if a Costco or Walmart or other national store chains were to offer the right deal, Jer-N-Al’s could be ready to go national.
“Marketing doesn’t give you this kind of exposure,” McGrady said of the Expo. “Just being there, I think you’re going to stand out.”