It was invigorating, a real treat, to go back to a food show after the past two years of pandemic-induced cancellations.
Natural Products Expo West was the first food trade show to be canceled in 2020 as the Covid pandemic became apparent. So it's been three years since the previous Expo West. In the fast evolving world of truly novel new products – and that's what Expo West is devoted to – that's a decade or more.
I suspect many of you have been to this show – after all, there were 85,000 attendees in 2019. If so, you know the energy and optimism there. If you haven't experienced Expo West, pencil it in now for March of 2023. This year's show drew "only" 57,000 attendees and more than 2,700 exhibitors March 8-12 at the Anaheim (Calif.) Convention Center. Even that reduced number would make it one of the largest food shows on the continent.
It's overwhelmingly a food and beverage show, but it also houses cleaning, beauty and home products and supplements. Attendees are retailers from stores such as Albertson’s, Kroger, Aldi, 7-Eleven, Sprouts, Whole Foods Market, etc.
This is the show where, I think it was a dozen years ago, one exhibitor tried to explain to me what Greek yogurt was. I thought, "With a name like Chobani, they won't be around long." Two moms started a baby food company because they didn't like the stuff available for their tots – and a Happy Baby was born. Angie Bastian brought huge bags of the popcorn she had been selling at Minnesota county fairs under the name Boomchickapop.
Subtract the General Mills and Hershey subsidiaries and some big ingredient companies like Cargill and Ingredion from that exhibitor number and you have at least 2,000 dreamers who hope to be the next Chobani. And it's likely some of them will be.
Some big names from past shows were absent: Chobani, Clif Bar, Danone, Hain Celestial, Stonyfield/Lactalis. While there were plant-based analogues everywhere – far outnumbering actual meat companies – neither Impossible Foods nor Beyond Meat was there. Only a small handful of CBD companies exhibited.
Nevertheless, companies with names like FroozeBalls, Doughp and Machu Picchu made their debuts among the 625 up-and-coming brands exhibiting for the first time. This year's Hollywood star – there seems to be one every year – was actress Jennifer Garner, clogging up the aisle in front of Once Upon a Farm Co., which she co-founded. At previous shows I've seen Jessica Alba, Channing Tatum, Marilu Henner and Fabio.
We'll have more show stories in the coming months, but I just wanted to celebrate the fact that live shows are back!