Written by The Business Journal Staff
“A buyer from Save Mart just came by the booth and sampled our sauce and said he really liked it,” said Jim Lanas, a sales associate with Parlier-based Cabron Brands, a hot sauce manufacturer exhibiting at the Fresno Food Expo for the first time.
Cabron, which was founded by Chris Lau in 2015, makes three varieties of hot sauce with artisan blends of peppers and spices “that balance the heat with delicious flavor,” Lanas said. “If we can get our product into Save Mart, that would be a huge break for us.”
Cabron was one of 33 companies competing for special honors at this year’s Expo, which include the coveted Buyer’s Choice and People’s Choice awards.
More than 130 of Central California’s premier food growers, manufacturers and processors — as well as 11 local restaurants — had the opportunity to connect with an estimated 950 local, regional, national and international retail and food service buyers during the daylong event, which actually kicked off Wednesday night with a special VIP reception.
This year, internationally renowned food critic, author and television personality Simon Majumdar was among the expo’s star attractions. The British-American chef is well known to foodies worldwide, having appeared as a judge on Food Network shows like Cutthroat Kitchen, Iron Chef America and The Next Iron Chef.
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, one of the driving forces behind the creation of the Fresno Food Expo, delivered a welcome address to attendees Thursday morning and also introduced the event’s newly expanded board of directors.
“We firmly believe and know that Fresno is the undisputed food capital of the world,” the mayor said.
By noon, Lanas said that he had handed out more than 100 samples of Cabron hot sauce. “There’s all kinds of hot sauces out there but a lot of them are overpowering. We think people want to taste their food too,” he said. “So we design our sauces that way. They’re all organic and have no preservatives.”
“Natural” and “preservative-free” were highlighted on many of the labels and banners on display at the expo, with a large number of the companies showcasing new organic product lines.
Among the other entries for this year’s New Product awards: 559 Beer, ENZO Organic Clementine Crush, In Distill of the Night Spirits’ Velvet Night Brandy, Lanna Cold Brew Coffee and Nature’s Joy Flavored Pistachio Kernels.
A panel of high-profile marketing and food industry leaders judged the new product competitors.
“The celebrity judging panel brings various perspectives on what foods, beverages and even more so, ingredients are driving consumer buying trends,” said Amy Fuentes, manager of the Fresno Food Expo. “These individuals understand the innovation and creativity required for a new product to be successful in such a competitive industry.”
Paul Rebelo, sales manager for Stockton-based Cal Ranch, a dried fruit and nut importer and exporter, said his company was exhibiting for the second year in a row.
“We got great leads at last year’s expo,” Rebelo said. “At the big food shows around the country, a lot of folks talk the talk. But we found out last year in Fresno that the contacts we made here really walk the walk.”
Kerman-based River Ranch Raisins, a first-time expo participant, was showing off its new Selma Pete variety of raisins. Dried on the vine, the raisins “never touch the ground,” making them “more sanitary” and giving the raisin “a fruity, meatier taste” than Thompson Seedless raisins, said Amy Burgess, the company’s general manager.
And the process used to harvest Selma Pete raisins is almost completely mechanized, Burgess added, which reduces the company’s labor costs by a whopping 40 to 50 percent.
“We’re competing with countries like Turkey and Afghanistan,” Burgess said. “All of those places have much cheaper labor costs than the United States. And especially here in California, where the minimum wage is going to $15 an hour, companies will have to find new and more creative ways to stay in business.”