After spending all of Monday at the Fancy Food Show in New York City, I couldn’t help but go back for a second serving the next day to talk to some of purveyors of this year’s top products.
Marcus Samuelssonwas the master of ceremonies and keynote speaker for the SOFI Awards — which stands for “specialty outstanding food innovation”. And while I had experienced flavor combinations that should be illegal in some states, the award winners proved that the Specialty Food industry is about more than just taste.
Over 2,500 products enter the competition, and judges are plucked from industry leading institutions, like Whole Foods Markets, the Culinary Institute of American, and Good Morning America, to nominate five finalists in each category. Then, anyone attending the show can vote for the products to choose the winners.
With 32 categories varying from Diet and Lifestyle Products to Chocolate, I decided to arbitrarily choose gold winners to find (because trying to find a specific stall at the show was like an evil treasure hunt). I picked five categories: Condiment, Cooking Sauce or Flavor Enhancer, Frozen Savory, Cheese or Dairy Product, and Pasta, Rice or Grain. I doubted that with such versatile categories there would be any commonalities among the winners beside, of course, the shiny gold chef statues that now adorned their place. I was wrong.
The most fascinating thing about each of these five winning products wasn’t the sensational tastes and flavors – but, yeah I’d buy each in bulk – rather, the people behind the brands.
I found, on my silly free-sample scavenger hunt, that the specialty food industry is anchored by an intense love of the product, and process by which it’s made. I expected world-class culinary veterans with reputable brands to represent the winning products. What I found was five winners with one thing in common: family.
So meet these SOFI-Award winning products, but remember the families behind them. They’ll probably be making your own family happy with what they have created:
We Rub You – Winner for Cooking Sauce or Flavor Enhancer
“It wasn’t part of our business plan for me to get pregnant,” Ann Chung told me. She started the company in 2012 with her sister, Janet, as a mobile food vendor in Brooklyn. When Ann got pregnant, Janet had to do most of the heavy lifting. The Smorgasburg Flea Market popped around the corner from them, so after people loved the Korean BBQ at their stand, they said, “Lets go for it.”
Besides taking classes at the French Culinary Institute, Ann and her sister didn’t have much experience in the food world. Their winning cooking sauce is a Spicy Korean BQQ Marinade. “We’re really proud of our flavor profiles.”
So what’s with the name? “It’s a little bit of a joke, and everyone gets that. We’re Korean-American, we like to joke around (about) the Korean language and how it sounds, so our parents saying we love you sounds like ‘we rub you’ and it’s also a family business and when we were throwing out names it made sense with grilling, so we were like you no what, ‘We Rub You’ it is.”
Luquire Family Foods – Winner for Pasta, Rice or Grain
The Luquire family started grinding grits over 80 years ago. “My grandfather could never have imagined grits being in vogue and in New York and winning a gold,” says Jason Luquire. But Jason and his family aren’t new to winning. Their Carolina Creole took the gold last year. Now, it’s all about the grits.
In a category as versatile as “pasta, rice, or grain”, and with juggernaut Italians presenting the finest noodles, grits proved to win the day. “Everyone loves grits,” his wife interjected. But there had to be some special combination that made the grits stand on top, right? “White corn we use, and we stone ground grits.” Simple as that, I guess.
Hancock Gourmet Lobster Co. – Winner for Frozen Savory
No surprise here that Cal Hancock calls Cundy’s Harbor, Maine home. “It’s what you think of when you think of Maine,” she says, referring to lobster. Her grandmother started her own lobster restaurant, which is still run by the family. But Cal wanted to start her own business after being in the medical management business for 25 years.
Ten years ago she realized, “Everyone was shipping lobster but no one was doing value added lobster. So I said, that’s my niche.”
Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company – Winner for Cheese or Dairy Product and New Product
Now, cheese was a-plenty at the Fancy Food Show this year. Big cheese, round cheese, smelly cheese, cheese from France, cheese from Spain, cheese from Kentucky, sweet cheeses, thick cheeses…you get the point. But the Big Cheese (you see what I did there?) came from a little farm in Marin County, California. The Point Reyes Farmstead has been owned by the Giacomini family for over a century, where they have distributed milk diary products. It was only in 2000 that the Giacomini’s started making cheese.
After going off into the world and pursuing their own careers, the four Giacomini sisters came back to the family farm – and they wanted to make cheese.
“It starts with the grass, and preserving the nature and essence of the farm in the milk, and in turn the cheese,” they told me. It always circles back to the cheese. “Any family business is challenging. They’re lying if they say it’s not… [but] we are all really passionate about great quality cheese, it always comes back to that.”
Virginia Chutney Co. – Winner for Condiment
Passing by the booth for the Virginia Chutney Co. felt like peeking into the Turner family’s living room. You immediately recognized that this spread had to be a family affair; Dad at his computer while mom worked the booth, feeding potential clients, the son Oliver Turner talked to me. “It’s the best and the worst of partners. As far as the family thing, we talk in a way that you wouldn’t. We talk about chutney all the time. I think I said chutney more than anyone on a daily basis.”
As Oliver discussed the company with me, “Mother Claire” couldn’t help but chime in, like any mom. The adorable trio have been at it for eight years, and they finally are seeing the hard work pay-off.
“My mother had the clever idea to start it off, and my father Neville and I hopped on board as fast as we could. She wanted to make it a little small thing and we were like, no we wanna make it big!”
The Turner family might have been my favorite of the day. These were the people who truly wanted to pursue something for the of love it. The obscurity of chutney is surpassed by that feel-good atmosphere you succumb to when seeing really nice people winning. But don’t be mistaken that any “Mom and Pop” shop can rise to top. Mother Claire warned that your uncle’s grilling sauce won’t be an overnight sensations — it’s hard and it takes time.
“For a while it was three little ducks all trying to fix things. But since we’ve separated our roles it’s gotten a lot easier. Mother Claire is in marketing and is really good on the phone. Dad does production and some finance stuff and I’m doing sales. But it was bad for a while, and I mean really bad. We didn’t even know how dysfunctional we were being at the time.”
Ok, we like the realism but still, the success of the Turners is a win for the little guy, and you gotta love that. Besides, chutney goes great with cheese.
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