Fresno Food Expo has Modesto-area entries

The Fresno Food Expo, an annual gathering of food makers and buyers, kicks off Thursday in what organizers say is the biggest show yet.

In its fourth year, the event is expected to attract 700 buyers and more than 125 of the San Joaquin Valley’s top food and beverage companies. It features a pair of new-product contests that have drawn entries from Stanislaus and nearby counties.

Amy Fuentes, the expo’s director, said the show has grown from a humble 65 vendors and about 100 buyers to a major regional food show. It also changed its date this year from the spring to late July to accommodate more fresh fruit vendors.

“If you are a new or established company and you want people to know about your product, this is the place to be,” Fuentes said. “This also gives you a great opportunity to meet with your industry peers and build relationships.”

Among the vendors this year are an Atwater distiller that makes vodka from sweet potatoes, a Hanford maker of specialty tea and a Fresno restaurant that has created a chipotle chicken and a pepperoni-cheese tamale.

About 1,200 tickets will be available for the evening portion of the expo, where the public can sample many of the vendors’ food and drink.

Major buyers to this year’s expo include Loblaw Cos., Canada’s largest food retailer with more than 1,000 grocery stores.

“They are huge and it is so great to have them here,” Fuentes said. “And we are also starting to see more interest from export trading companies based in San Francisco and Los Angeles.”

One of the goals of the expo is to give local companies greater exposure to retailers and international buyers. As the businesses grow, the hope is that they will pump money back into the local economy in the form of increased sales or jobs.

Fuentes said there have been many success stories, including Flavia Takahashi-Flores, owner of P*DE*Q. It makes little, cheesy Brazilian bread balls.

The company premiered the cheese balls at the first Fresno Food Expo in 2011 and has grown to include two stores, nearly two dozen employees and placement in 23 Northern California Costco stores.

Also taking off is Debi Franklin, owner of Deb’s Gourmet, makers of sweet and smoky jalapeño peppers. She says the exposure she has received at the expo has proven valuable. Her jalapeños are now carried in nearly 400 specialty retail and grocery stores in six states.

“The show’s exposure has really helped me solidify my footing as a business,” she said. “When I first started, one of the things several large grocery stores told me is that they wanted to see me in business for at least three or four years. Well, here I am.”

New Fresno Food Expo vendors say meeting consumers face to face is just as important as talking to buyers.

David Souza, founder and master distiller of Sweet Potato Spirits in Atwater, is bringing his award-winning vodka to the expo. He hopes to gain more exposure among retailers, but he also wants more people in the Fresno area to taste his handcrafted vodka.

“There are lot of people who don’t know about us and we want to raise our profile throughout the Valley,” he said.

Souza said his smooth-tasting vodka appeals to the more discriminating spirits drinker but also those who are fans of craft beer.

“I don’t think there is another vodka that is more handcrafted than ours and people appreciate that,” he said.

Also eager to showcase their product is Steve Bannister, co-owner of L.T. Sue Co. in Hanford. The tea maker will bring its special line of San Joaquin Valley tea blends. The teas have names like Fig Garden, a black tea mingled with black mission figs.

“We have a very unique product that we hope the public will like and will sell well at stores like Whole Foods, specialty retail stores or served in restaurants,” Bannister said.

As in previous years, sellers are competing for special recognition in the Buyer’s Choice Award. The 10 finalists include dried apples from Bella Viva Orchards near Hughson, which tied for the award last year with Cold House Vodka of Modesto. Sunrise Fresh of Stockton is a finalist this year with its Dark Sweet Dried Cherries.

The judging panel includes Erna Kubin-Clanin, owner of Erna’s Elderberry House and Chateau du Sureau; Whole Foods buyer Harvinder Singh; and Amanda Sayers, a Kroger buyer.

Online voting by the public will determine the People’s Choice Award. The entrants include nut-flavored sparkling waters that Varni Bros. of Modesto sells under the Nella Bella label.

Votes can be cast until 4:59 p.m. Thursday at www.foodexpo.com or www.facebook.com/fresnofoodexpo.