The Fancy Food Show's Lack of Diversity
The Fancy Food Show is a yearly trade show that showcases tens of thousands of specialty food and beverage products. I look forward to going to every year, but due to covid, they have been on hiatus. I like to keep my ear to the street, and meet people who are doing new and unique things in the food industry. In the past, I’ve attended merely as a spectator, and used the show as a networking event, and a means to stay ahead of upcoming food trends. But this year, and I had a new mission. Soul Box.
Early on when I started Soul Box I found it extremely difficult to find black owned businesses in the food space who were creating products that I could curate recipes with. After scouring the internet and social media for reputable food brands to no avail. My first thought was to hire someone who’s sole purpose was to find brands I could partner with, promote, and create recipes using their product. I even created a job description for the position, and reached out to some folks who I thought might like to become a Black Owned Business (B.O.B) Liaison, and help me find these businesses.
It wasn’t until I got the email about this years Fancy Food Show that I had an aha moment and realized I could find the B.O.B’s on my own, in one place, while simultaneously promoting Soul Box. I was even more excited to find that the show was in Las Vegas this year (it’s usually in San Francisco) and I could make the trip a little vacation as well! So I registered with the SFA and booked my arrangements.
I was really excited to go to the Fancy Food Show, I mapped out my day using the SFA app, and even registered for a few of the courses they offered to new businesses (which I didn’t make it to due to a flight delay). When I arrived, I registered, for my badge, and did a casual walk through. I perused the aisles, glancing left and right. I saw brands I recognized from my local farmers market (shout out to Bolani), some new companies I hadn’t heard of, as well as the same old brands we know and love. There was a pasta section, a cheese section, a chocolate section. Everyone’s displays looked great, and they represented their brands well. After searching for a while, I noticed there weren’t many black owned brands that I could find.
I stopped and spoke to a woman at the 360 photo booth who was wearing a SFA badge and asked her if there was a section that highlighted Black owned or diverse food brands. She told me that I would recognize the booths because they would have a sign that says “DEI” on them. I thought to myself, “that seems pretty polarizing, but ok.” After making another round and not noticing the sign on any displays, I went to the information booth and grabbed a magazine guide. One of the workers asked what I was looking for, and when I told him I was looking specifically for Black Owned Businesses. He looked at me confused and then said, “uh I don’t know how to help you with that, let me ask someone else.” As he spoke on his walkie talkie asking uncomfortably for the section with Black Owned Makers, I found what I was looking for in the”Diverse Ownership” section of the directory magazine. I noticed that the majority of the companies were in one place, so I headed to the “incubator village.”
The incubator village was just what you imagine it to be in your mind. A section, pushed off to the back corner, with tiny booths. Of the about 12 booths, 3 were black owned businesses, while the rest were represented by brown, women owned, or lgbtq companies. These are all my target demographic companies so I made my rounds, speaking to each vendor. Asking them about their back story, whole sale pricing, and if they had the ability to make their product in different sizes. I was disappointed at the responses I received. A lot of the companies seemed to have everything in order, but couldn’t answer the more difficult questions about the ability to scale. Which, as a growing entrepreneur myself is no knock to them, I just expected them to have more answers since they were showcasing at a major event.
All over the event space there were tons of companies with interesting products. From cheese chips, to spicy chocolates, to ready made molè. But the black owned makers had your typical BBQ or Jerk Sauce, and easily obtained spice blends. I know that everyone has a special recipe for their sauce and seasonings, I too make a mean jerk blend. However, I was looking for something fresh and new. I wanted to be inspired by the products, so that I could create something exciting for Soul Box. I walked away from the incubator village feeling defeated, and uninspired (which was sad because I was walking around feeling like Beyonce LOL).
I left the Fancy Food Show early in the afternoon. I walked the aisle 3 to 4 times and I just wasn’t seeing anything that inspired me as a chef. The fact that there was minimal diversity added to the defeat I felt because my sole mission was to find products that I could use for Soul Box. I have never vended at the show, so I am unaware of the exhibitor process. But I left wondering how they go about getting the word out about the show. Are black owned companies even aware that there is such a huge opportunity like this out there for them? If so, is there a barrier to entry, be it financial, or otherwise? There seems to be a larger discussion that needs to be had about The Fancy Food Show. Is their Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion team really making an effort to do outreach to reputable black owned brands that are already established? Or are they satisfied with the status quo of bringing small businesses that aren’t necessarily ready to scale to the market place, to make them a token out of them?
In the fashion Industry there is a trade show called Magic, that everyone in the industry is aware of. It’s where you go to find buyers for your brand, learn about new trends, and make connections with other people in the industry. Before I even went to school for fashion, I knew about this show and was excited for the day I would get to attend. The Fancy Food Show is the “Magic Show” of food, and I find it hard to understand why in 2022 there isn’t enough representation for black owned food brands. Which perpetuates the existing state of affairs in local grocery stores, e-commerce sites, and local outdoor markets.
The Fancy Food Show is a three day event, I only attended the first day. I saw all that I needed to see in just a few hours. I paid roughly $400 for entrance, not including the price of my travel arrangements. All in al I don’t feel like the experience was worth the time, money, or effort. I created Soul Box to highlight and partner with black owned food brands, that historically don’t get the shine they deserve. The Fancy Food Show perpetuated that same sentiment. I left the show feeling like now there’s a bigger mission at play for Soul Box; creating our own trade show! Not just for black makers, but also LGBTQ, Native, and other BIPOC creators. Representation matters, there is a pride we feel when we see our culture on store shelves. In 2022, we still have so far to go...