Stacy Chilcoff, a self-described stay-at-home mom from Orange County, right, discusses her product, Kalifornia Keto, with an attendee at the California Food Expo. Photo by David Castellon.

published on September 23, 2019 - 12:07 PM
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The right name can be a big driver in a business’ success.

Imagine whether Amazon would have become the ecommerce juggernaut it is now if Jeff Bezos had named it “Abra Kadabra,” as he originally wanted.

Organizers of the California Food Expo, held earlier this month at the Fresno Convention Center, realized this when they renamed this year’s annual trade show from the name it had over the eight previous years, the “Fresno Food Expo.”

The two-day event brought 130 vendors — mostly makers and sellers of food products and beverages that ranged from packaged fruit snacks for children to frozen meals to vegan ice cream-like desserts to vodka — together with about 850 buyers and other representatives mostly from the grocery and restaurant industries.

The goal for the exhibitors was to get their products on store shelves, whether in small chains or big ones that include Walmart, Costco and Kroger.

The attendees also included food service buyers from hotels, casinos and other institutions, including school districts, hospitals and prisons.

Launching pad
Over the years the Expo has existed, some products featured there have gone from local sellers to being sold by national retailers and even overseas.

But organizers wanted to expand the event’s influence, as most of the businesses exhibiting in the past have tended to largely come from Central California, even though the event has always been open to food-related businesses based anywhere in the state.

This year, organizers of the Expo have tried to make it more “all of California focused” by rechristening it the “California Food Expo” in hopes of drawing more exhibitors and attendees from Northern and Southern California, along with the Bay Area, said Amy Fuentes, manager of the event.

The change seems to be paying off.

Martin Kruger, chief operating officer of Follow Your Heart in Los Angeles, a manufacturer of vegan mayonnaise — Vegenaise — already has shelf space in every major grocery chain in the U.S. and sells in 39 other countries, but he still is looking for more places to sell his plant-based products.

“We’re here because it is now called the ‘California Food Expo,’” he said in an interview at his booth on the expo floor.

He said even if he had heard of the expo before this year, he probably wouldn’t have come because “Fresno” in the name implied, at least to him, a focus on food businesses in the Central Valley, which didn’t apply to his business.

“With the change to California Food Expo, we are a California-based company. We are a big player in the plant-based food sector. This is a show we thought we would need to be aligned with,” Kruger said, adding, “How could California Food Expo be a show without Follow Your Heart?”

Embrace the state
Stacey Chilcoff said she also might not have been in Fresno this week had the expo not changed its name.

A self-described stay-at-home mother, about a year ago Chilcoff started with her adult son, Kalifornia Keto, a Yorba Linda-based maker of cookie, cake and energy bar mixes for people on keto [ketogenic] diets — generally involving foods with low-carbohydrates; high, healthy fats; and moderate proteins.

She said she heard about the expo in Fresno in March while exhibiting at a trade show for natural food products in Anaheim.

Chilcoff said she looked up the event here and was happy to see it’s now “California Food Expo.”

The change to embrace the rest of the state makes sense, “because there are a ton of food companies here,” she said.

And had the old name stuck, Chilcoff said she probably wouldn’t have come “because it probably would have been focused on the Fresno food — the Central Valley — and now that they’ve opened it up to all of California, yeah.”

Wider net
Fuentes said the first year with the new name didn’t boost the total number of exhibitors on hand, which remained comparable to last year, but it does appear to have altered the geographic mix.

She said, “35 percent of our show exhibitors are new and from outside the Valley,” and this year, a higher ratio of independent retailer representatives from up north and down south attended the event.

“California is a very well-known brand, and I think that was part of our strategy in expanding to the entire state. You know, Fresno being the heart of California’s food industry, we are accessible, and it is a very convenient location to find California products.”

Fuentes added that at least for this year, the change in the expo’s name wasn’t intended to beef up the number of exhibitors “as much as to expand our footprint where these exhibitors were coming from.”

How the cookie crumbles
And that strategy worked on Shahira Marei, owner of The Dirty Cookie out of Irvine, which makes cookie shot glasses you can eat as you sip milk or a milk substitute from, along with a spread made from cookies.

“I really wasn’t interested in the city of Fresno, but because I saw it was California [in the name], and other people from outside of Fresno were going to be there, it motivated me to come — and it wasn’t too far.

That decision may pay off big, as Marei said that through the expo she had lined up meetings with buyers from two grocery chains.

“I’m so excited.”

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