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published on March 29, 2016 - 6:21 PM
Written by The Business Journal Staff
The increasingly popular Fresno Food Expo (FFE) is shifting gears as it begins its sixth year, launching itself as an independent, nonprofit organization with a new board of directors made up of some of the Valley’s most successful agribusiness leaders.

At an event held in mid-March at Sunnyland Mills, the country’s largest regional food show introduced the new 13-member board and also unveiled a new logo, website and expanded business plan.

The Expo was originally the brainchild of Ashley Swearengin, an economic development-minded mayor who believed a regional venue to showcase the Valley’s agricultural abundance would produce big dividends for the Central Valley economy.

The first Fresno Food Expo, held in 2011, featured 65 exhibitors and drew several hundred buyers.

Last year’s edition, which helped launch 129 new products, featured more than 100 exhibitors and as many as 150 exhibitors are expected at this year’s event, which will draw nearly 1,000 qualified buyers representing food companies from across the country and around the world.

“We’ve seen this show grow tremendously,” Mayor Swearengin said. “It’s become a real engine for our agricultural community. We’re confident that as our show grows, we’ll see it create more jobs, more locally grown businesses.”

During its first five years in operation, City of Fresno personnel ran the FFE, with assistance from an advisory board made up of industry insiders.

Even with the shift away from City control and to a standalone 501(c)6 organization, Mayor Swearengin will serve as the board chair for the FFE’s 2016 run, slated to take place July 27-28 at the Fresno Convention Center.

Swearengin will be joined on the new Fresno Food Expo board, which will meet quarterly and more frequently in sub-committees, by some of the Valley’s most influential business leaders, including Fred Ruiz, co-founder and chairman emeritus of Ruiz Foods, Helen Chavez-Hansen, owner and president of La Tapatia Tortilleria, Jimmy Maxey, CEO of Certified Meat Products and Bill Smittcamp, president and CEO of Wawona Frozen Foods.

“Fresno is the food capital of the world and we’re extremely grateful for the opportunity to be part of the Fresno Food Expo,” said Mark Ford, owner and vice president of JD Food and another member of the new FFE board.

Ford, whose company has exhibited at the Expo since the event’s founding, said, “The show really gives you pride in being part of something bigger than yourself.”

Mike Grazier, of Busseto Foods, Chuck Nichols of Nichols Pistachio, Rod Noll of U.S. Cold Storage, Justin Parnagian of Fowler Packing, Agnes Saghatelian Wilson of Valley Lahvosh Baking, Vincent Ricchiuti of ENZO Olive Oil and Gerawan Farming’s Denver Schutz round out the inaugural FFE board.

“This new board is really representative of the power and diversity of the Valley’s food industry,” Swearengin said.

Unlike other trade shows, the Fresno Food Expo provides the opportunity for local, regional, national and international buyers to connect with the actual presidents and CEOs behind some of the nation’s largest food industry companies.

The show is also popular with area residents and visitors, who flock to the second day of the event to sample a veritable smorgasbord of Valley-centric food and beverages.

“The Fresno Food Expo is about putting on display what we do in the Fresno area better than any other part of the world,” said the mayor, who likes to refer to herself as the event’s official “taster in chief.”

Local ag leaders couldn’t be more excited to help support the homegrown Expo.

A third-generation, family-owned business — and the country’s oldest manufacturer of Bulgur wheat — Fresno’s Sunnyland Mills has been a mainstay at the Fresno Food Expo.

“For our company, the Fresno Food Expo provides an invaluable opportunity for networking and sharing ideas,” said Steve Orlando, who together with his brother Michael, owns and operates Sunnyland Mills, which hosted the FFE’s coming out party.

The FFE’s new Fresno office is located at 1100 W. Shaw, Suite 140, near the intersection of Palm and Shaw avenues. David Nalchajian, who will oversee the operation as general manager, said former City of Fresno employee Amy Huerta Fuentes will serve as the FFE’s new day-to-day boss. Before the launch of the expo as an independent entity, Fuentes had served on the mayor’s staff.

During the launch party, Nalchajian made a point of noting that farmers and those in the ag industry “tend to be humble — like Fresno, most of them started small and still have an amazing degree of humility. But the Fresno Food Expo is more than just a trade show. Food is our hero,” he added. “So we’ve got to try to be a little less humble and really celebrate what’s here in the Valley.”

Confirming at least 950 qualified buyers have already registered to attend this year’s expo, Nalchajian said, “Every dollar [the FFE] earns goes back into the show. So we expect to expand significantly” in the future.

Nalchajian also said a celebrity chef from the Food Network will be spotlighted at this year’s Expo and he promised to reveal who it will be in a few weeks.

At last year’s show, Hanford’s Rosa Brothers Milk Company received the inaugural Fred Ruiz Entrepreneurial Award. Nalchajian said the legacy award was created in 2015 to honor “companies who have the same vision and qualities that took Ruiz Foods from a small, family start-up to the largest frozen Mexican food manufacturer in the United States.”

Ruiz, who together with his father founded the Dinuba-based company, said he was humbled to have an Fresno Food Expo award given in his honor.

“Through our awards programs, mentorship, educational training and a shared vision for the future for the thriving food industry that exists here, the Expo is connecting companies big and small from different sectors of the industry in an unprecedented way,” Ruiz said.

“By acting as a resource for the region’s food community,” he added, “this collaborative initiative deepens the celebration of food production and the personal experience food inspires while promoting increased business growth, connectivity and commerce for the overall region.” 


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