Editor's Plate: The Two Worlds of Food and Beverage

Nearly back-to-back events contrast where the innovation is versus where the money is.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

I just returned from my two favorite annual business trips relating to the food and beverage industry: the Consumer Analysts Group of New York (CAGNY) annual meeting and Natural Products Expo West. While it seems difficult to fit them under the same theme, there are some logical connections. Although they’re mostly a study in contrasts.

On the surface, nothing could be more disparate. CAGNY was held in mid-February at the tony Boca Raton Resort & Club. The CEOs, CFOs and other C’s at 11 of the top food and beverage companies come in suits (except for Hain Celestial’s Irwin Simon) to “sell” their companies to the Wall Street analysts. Irene Rosenfeld (Mondelez), Ken Powell (General Mills), Muhtar Kent (Coca-Cola) – these are my rock stars. I feel privileged just to be in the same room with them, albeit far back in the roped-off press section.

Natural Products West is held in early March in Anaheim, Calif. It’s outgrown the convention center, spilling into the basketball arena, the Hilton and Marriott and even the sidewalks between the buildings. Most of these CEOs are in tie-dye T-shirts, hemp skirts and jeans, sandals on their feet. Some are in even weirder attire.

At CAGNY, Campbell Soup execs talked excitedly about launching organic soups; the Hershey people revealed a gourmet caramel; and Kellogg unveiled a plastic tub for Pringles!

And they call that innovation.

At Nat West, Hampton Creek was explaining its egg-free mayonnaise (which has drawn much publicity, investment and a short-lived lawsuit from Unilever); Neat was cooking up meatless sloppy joes made from powdered pecans, garbanzos and oats; and Peas of Mind was sampling toddler-targeted french fries (Wedgies) made from broccoli, carrot, cauliflower and apple.

Having the two events so close in timing made me wish there was a way of bringing them together. The Wall Street analysts need to see and invest in at least some of these purveyors of coconut water, alternative yogurts and ultra-healthy snacks. And the food and beverage company CEOs need to see the amazing innovation that is packed into every nook and cranny of the Anaheim Convention Center. So when their R&D dept. gushes about achieving gluten-free status for a tired old product, they can ask where they are with the hemp, chia and buckwheat cereal.

Actually, the big companies have been paying attention to Nat West. It struck me how many of the exhibitors, which once were independent little companies, are now owned by the big guys. But they go to great lengths to hide that fact, and maybe that’s a good thing.

Consider the booths that are labeled:

  • Annie’s, not General Mills; also Cascadian Farm, Food Should Taste Good, Larabar and Muir Glen (all were exhibitors at Nat West)
  • Boca Foods, not Kraft
  • Bolthouse Farms, Plum Organics, not Campbell Soup
  • Coleman Natural Foods, not Perdue
  • Golden Island (jerky), not Tyson
  • HappyFamily and Stonyfield Farm, not Dannon
  • Kashi, not Kellogg
  • Krave, not Hershey
  • Naked Juice, SoBe, Stacy’s, not PepsiCo
  • Odwalla, not Coca-Cola
  • Sahale Snacks, not J.M. Smucker

I don’t know if it’s every entrepreneur’s dream or nightmare to be bought out by a big company, but Nat West is quite an incubator. If you missed it, plan to attend next year.

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