...I was with everyone else at Natural Products Expo West the annual extravaganza in Anaheim, California, that is the food industry answer to South By. When I attended Expo West for the first time last year, I was awestruck by the sheer number of people, the seemingly never-ending exhibit space (if I knew anything about football I might be able to tell you how many football fields in covered but, trust me, I know there are probably quite a few) and non-stop party atmosphere that takes over the plaza outside the convention center.
There's probably no greater testament to how the food industry has changed than looking at some of the stats over the 36-year history of Expo West.
Hearing about the show in the past, I imagined a show floor with simple tabletop displays staffed by Birkenstock-wearing, dreadlocked entrepreneurs trying to sell the recipe they whipped up in their Berkley kitchens to similarly shod and coiffed health food store owners. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Birkenstocks, dreadlocks, Berkley kitchens or health food store owners.)
Perhaps that’s the way it was 35 years ago, when the first Expo West had just 3000 attendees. Today, you’re more likely to find enthusiastic millennials sporting company T-shirts and Lululemons staffing booths that are larger than many homes. And, while they’re still selling the latest innovations, they’re more likely to come from an R&D facility or from the above-mentioned dreadlocked entrepreneur, whose company they bought for mega-millions. (And, again, let me add that I have nothing against, millennials, company T-shirts, Lululemons or booths bigger than my apartment).
So it’s no surprise that there’s plenty of “I remember when” grumbling about how things have changed. I, for one, welcome it. Okay, it’s a little loud, the hotels are overcrowded, and the lines at Starbucks are reminiscent of the bread lines in Soviet Russia. But I see this all as a positive sign for the food industry. First, I like that it signals that innovation is happening in the food industry. In recent years, many have complained about the lack of innovation in food. But, whether it’s from the hopeful entrepreneurs that still stand behind tabletop displays showcasing something they made, discovered or invented, or the companies in the McMansion-sized booths sampling the recipes whipped up by their R&D teams, there is a lot that’s new. Yes, it’s hard to believe we need another popcorn, but there was still enough that was new on the show floor to get me excited for what’s to come.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, none of this would be happening if consumers weren’t changing as well. While the mainstream consumer probably isn’t demanding sprouted almonds, they have made it clear that they do want to see the types of “free from” foods that predominate the show.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t see Expo West as some sort of nirvana where every idea is innovative and every ingredient is something I keep in my cabinet or my fridge. Even with nearly 10,000 exhibitors, it’s hard to find a completely original idea. To all you entrepreneurs out there, I know your product is the best one ever but please, please don’t make me sample another nut butter, jerky, water, snack bar, smoothie or kale chip.
There were also plenty of products that listed sugar as their first ingredient and had long lists of unrecognizable ingredients. I don’t know if that was the case in the dreadlocks and Birkenstock days but, if it wasn’t, I apologize to the grumblers. If you’re going to call a show Natural Products Expo East then the products should be, er, natural.
Even so, I’m excited about what the growth of this show means. And when housing registration opens up in July, I’ll be the first one online booking my hotel (it won’t be at the Clarion – but that’s another blog post). I can’t wait to see what’s next. Just, please, promise me it won’t be granola.