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WHAT'S IN STORE: Expo provides a taste of Virginia-made food

What does it take to win the “Best New Product Overall” title at the Virginia Food & Beverage Expo?

I got a chance to find out firsthand Wednesday when I volunteered to be one of six judges at the biennial industry event, which was held at the Greater Richmond Convention Center.

Gail Moody Milteer, who works in sales and market development for Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, armed us with clipboards and scoring sheets to rate 63 sauces, salsas and other items on such factors as originality, taste and packaging.

Our group included an executive chef, a food writer and the Specialty Food Association’s senior director. We had two minutes at each booth, which was just enough time to hear an explanation about it, see the packaging and get a taste before the awards were presented at 11 a.m.

We started off with thimble-size sips of Blue Crab Bay Co.’s Jalapeño Infused Margarita Mixer, a lime-based blend with a hint of jalapeño for extra zip. It was made from natural ingredients, a phrase we’d hear over and over, and came packaged in 25-ounce bottle with a colorful label.

A number of vendors also stressed their product’s versatility. We were wowed, for example, when Willard Ashburn gave us a sample of his Ashburn Sauce Co.’s Crabby Mary bloody Mary mix, which contains bits of crab, shrimp and lobster. He told us it could also be used as a soup or pasta sauce. It also didn’t hurt that the bottle had an eye-catching label of a curvacious blonde perched on a life preserver.

Then there was Kenny Letner, who had one of the more unusual back stories for his product. He told us that he’d researched the Aztec origins of salsa to come up with his own version.

According to the priests who translated the descriptions of how it was made from Aztec Codices, the tomatoes and other ingredients turned into more of a sauce than the chunky salsas popular today, he said. Letner came up with his interpretation and named it Molina Salsa after one of the translators.

Once the scores were tallied, Ashburn Sauce Co.’s Crabby Mary bloody Mary mix had won the Best New Product Overall award. Blue Crab Bay Co. netted the Best New Beverage title, and Letner received the Best New Food Award for his Molina Salsa.

The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services holds the expo to showcase Virginia-made food and beverage products to buyers for regional and national chains as well as gourmet shops and bed-and-breakfasts.

This year 142 companies participated, along with six associations including the American Egg Board. That’s the highest number of exhibitors—and new exhibitors—that the expo has had, said Olivia Wilson, VDACS marketing and promotions coordinator.

Their products ran the gamut. There were micro greens and maple syrup in kid-friendly squeeze bottles, zesty pickles and peppery salsas, kale chips and cookies, even chocolates infused with Barboursville Vineyards wine and some gourmet doggie treats.

I wasn’t quite sure how to score the latter for taste, but we were assured that dogs loved them.

Approximately 1,600 buyers preregistered for the expo. Wilson said that she expected the event would do as well or better than the last one, when buyers placed $1 million in orders on the day of the show.

Among the vendors were a number of new and returning companies hailing from the Fredericksburg region.

Lindi Copeland, a Spotsylvania County graphic designer, was one of the newcomers. She’d taken up beekeeping as a hobby and was inspired by a bumper crop of both honey and habanero peppers to create Honey Habanero Sauce. The condiment, which has a sweet heat, glows a jewel-like orange in clear glass jars. It won one of Virginia Living magazine’s All the Made in Virginia Awards last year.

“I wasn’t sure if I was quite ready, but what the heck,” Copeland said of the expo, “I’ve learned quite a lot from the other vendors and buyers have offered advice.”

She said she planned to decide what kind of growth she wanted for the part-time business after the show.

“This really is a little overwhelming,” Copeland said.

Sean Ricks of Ricks Roasters Coffee in Quantico said that he figured that entering the expo would pay for itself if he could get at least one distributor for his freshly roasted Arabica beans. By early afternoon, he’d already lined up two and possibly three.

Ricks, who is in the Navy, started the company with his wife, Keely Ricks, a social worker for Stafford County Schools, last May after he couldn’t find the coffee he’d liked while stationed in Indonesia.

“We decided to buy green beans and roast them ourselves,” he said.

The couple started out with a roaster that could handle a quarter pound at a time, then installed one that could handle 33 pounds at their house. Their coffee is now available at such places at Olde Towne Butcher in Fredericksburg and Olde Virginia Gourmet & Gifts in Stafford County. Ten percent of the profits go to charity.

Among the returnees was Cheri McGaffic, who used to operate Old Time Lollipops, Candy & Fudge Factory as a store in downtown Fredericksburg. These days she makes the treats in Spotsylvania and wholesales them to Wegmans and does road shows at Sam’s Clubs on the East Coast.

She was handing out samples of sinfully rich chocolate-covered pecan turtles, among other goodies at the expo.

“There’s been a very good response,” McGaffic said.

The Van Cleve family—mom Shelly Van Cleve and daughters Monica Van Cleve and Alexandra Cushing—were also back to test the waters for a smaller size of their popular crab pie.

They were overwhelmed the first time they exhibited the 10-inch version at the expo because they weren’t prepared to ship the volume that grocery-store buyers were interested in.

“We didn’t know what we didn’t know,” Shelly Van Cleve said.

Competing in Lifetime’s “Supermarket Superstar,” where judges urged Monica Van Cleve to consider a smaller version, helped. The Van Cleves now have a manufacturer and sell their pies in a 5-ounce size.

“This is the first time we’ve been able to meet the demand,” Monica Van Cleve said.

Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407



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