It has been one month since the Fancy Food Show, and I’m just now finding the time to write about my experience. A lot has happened thanks to the show, keeping me very busy over the last few weeks. Attending the show was quite different than exhibiting in it. As an observer last year I came to critique. I ran through the floors looking for anything interesting to eat, and was entirely focused on the food. This year, when I was finally able to leave our booth, I found myself more focused on packaging options and sales collateral than the food! I did eat plenty in the end, but overall I got the most pleasure from meeting the people behind the companies exhibiting. I can now fully appreciate the work it took each company to set up their booths, stock it with samples, and keep it staffed for three long days.
So what does it take to have a booth at the Fancy Food Show? This will be a long post. Having a booth is like setting up a mini store. You have to worry about everything like flooring, samples, permits, staff, sales collateral and much, much more. Since Amai doesn’t have a retail store yet, this was a big effort to pull together. Kathryn and I split duties – she was responsible for assembling the booth, while I worked to prepare samples and packaging.
True to the Amai style, we wanted our booth to be different than the standard variety with a big plastic stand and vinyl banners. Our biggest constraint was around cost, and keeping things simple and easy to move. To design the booth we worked with a friend of Kathryn’s, who helped us sketch ideas and source materials.
Like most trade shows (I have come to learn), the Fancy Food Show is union run. The rules of the show mandated that anything that can’t be carried in by one person, by hand, without the assistance of any carts or wheels, must be carried by a designated union member. Of course this means $$$. The rules also said that you get the first 200 pounds moved for free, so our goal was to keep any big items under a total of 200 pounds. As a result of this constraint, our design consultant recommended we go with fabric panels to decorate the sides and top of the booth. We loved the idea since it is easy to carry and gives the booth a very natural feel. We picked an off-white linen fabric for the walls, and had red draping coming across the ceiling and down the sides. A brown panel was set up on the back, behind a natural color fabric sign with our logo on it. Once it was properly sewn to hang on the rods (which took three attempts to properly complete), Kathryn had to take the curtains to the fire marshall to get certified that they were flame retardant. To test for flame retarding they literally set a piece of your fabric on fire. Well, our fabric failed the test, so we had to pay a few hundred dollars to get it properly treated. If I learned one thing from this show, it’s that it can cost a lot of money in ways you never predicted.
After the backdrop was set, the rest of the booth was sketched by our designers. They suggested we run a table lengthwise down the center of the booth, so passersby would be drawn in to sample and talk to us. It was a great idea. People who stopped by were genuinely interested and it made a great centerpiece to display our products on. Underneath the table we had three stools where we could meet with customers and sit down to rest. The stools ended up being the only thing we did not use throughout the entire show. I learned that no one at a tradeshow has time to sit down! Next time around I might purchase tall chairs to lean against, but if you have time to sit down in your booth it probably means you’re not very popular. If you sit down it also looks like you’re a slacker, who is not interested in really selling their products. I recommend spending the money on comfortable shoes instead.
While Kathryn was running around the city getting things for the booth, I was in the kitchen with my favorite baker, Vanessa, trying to make samples for the show. NASFT estimated that 25,000-30,000 people would be attending the show, and I had no idea how many samples to prepare. I estimated that we would need approximately 5,000 samples to cover us over the three day show. I planned to make 500 of each of the five flavors of Tea Sweets (2500 cookies total), and 300 of each flavor of Botanical Brownies (1200 brownies total). I was then planning to cut each cookie and brownie in half for samples at the show. Vanessa and I worked night and day, along with many other friends and family volunteers, to get the samples ready.
Making the samples wouldn’t have been so difficult to do, if it wasn’t for two major setbacks. The first problem came with the Chai Almond cookies. The recipe I use has the amount of butter listed in ounces. To make it easier for us to measure out the butter, we did the math in our heads to convert ounces to pounds, so we could simply count out 1lb blocks of butter instead of having to weigh it all. This would have been fine, if we used a calculator! Never convert when you’re tired. The math was wrong, and we made two batches of Chai cookies with an extra 3 pounds of butter in it. The cookies spread too much to use, and we had no idea what went wrong since we had made this recipe successfully many times in the past. We gave away hundreds of cookies and spent many hours redoing the work.
The second setback came with the brownies. I was making a double batch of lychee brownies – enough dough for 700. To make our brownies you need to melt chocolate over a double boiler. On this day at the kitchen I wasn’t able to use the regular stove, so I set up a small burner on the table. I put all of the chocolate in a big metal bowl and was ready to melt it, when I realized that I needed a pot of water for the double boiler. It took me some time to get the burner lit, so I didn’t want to turn it off while I went to get the pot of water. I also didn’t want to leave an exposed flame, so I (STUPIDLY) put the bowl of chocolate on the burner. I was planning to be gone for only 30 seconds, but in that time the direct flame on the bowl scorched a piece of chocolate, sending streams of smoke into the air. I had never smelled burnt chocolate before, and had no idea it could be that bad. The smell permeated the entire batch of chocolate, even pieces that weren’t melted at all. I removed the burnt piece of chocolate and continued to make the recipe, hoping the smell would fade after it’s baked (afterall, the rest of the chocolate was perfect). I made the brownies and tasted the end result. Yep, it tasted like burnt chocolate. The entire batch had to be thrown away because of one 30 second mistake. I will never do that again!
In the end it turns out we didn’t even need half of the number of samples we had prepared. When people stopped by our booth they were so full from sampling all day they didn’t want to eat anything else. 1/10 of one brownie was enough of a sample for most people, leaving us with plenty of extras. Luckily NASFT has experience with this excess of food, and organized all leftovers to be donated to City Harvest. I can tell they have done this before, unlike myself. At least I was overprepared, rather than under.
Once showtime came it was all about moving quickly. On the Saturday before the show began, Andrew and I loaded up the van with the entire trade show set up, and met Kathryn and two other volunteers at the Javits Center who were going to help us unload. The Javits Center gives you 15 minutes to unload your van, with no second attempts or time extensions. Our volunteers moved fast and got everything out of the van and onto the curb in record time. They were amazing! They stayed behind to hand carry the items into our booth, which was up a set of stairs on the opposite side of the convention center, while I took the van around back to get our heavy table unloaded by the union members.
To give you a true sense of what this experience was like, I should mention the condition of the van I rented. I picked it up from the rental company who said, “Oh yes, it’s a brand new 2006 van.” The only problem is that the first person who rented it got into an accident, taking out the driver side mirror. They hadn’t replaced it yet so I had to take the van as is. I drove around town, Ace Ventura style, with my head out the window. This was difficult on New York City streets where lanes don’t matter, and in the crowded Javitz parking lot, but the show must go on! I pulled the van around the back, up the winding driveway of the Javits center, and got two big burly union men to bring in our table. We then spent the rest of the day setting up the booth. My parents were coming in from California that day to help, and I had them come straight from the airport to the Javits Center. Welcome to New York!
The time spent during the show was great. We served tea along with our cookies, and I had a great time talking to people as I handed out samples. Since we are a wholesale operation, we don’t have a floor sales staff. We had several of our friends and family volunteer to help with this effort. Ironically two of my old bosses, Melinda from my old computer days and Ayse, from Polka Dot Cake Studio, both came to help. My dad, mom and Andrew staffed the booth almost continuously. Two great guys named Josh and Carlos also came to help and did much of the heavy lifting. We couldn’t have done it without them. Thank you.
The show was the perfect place to showcase our new products. We had custom red boxes made for our new Tea Sweets and Botanical Brownie gift packaging. (The boxes will make their debut at Henri Bendel in New York on August 28. Stay tuned…) We also got to show off our new brownie packaging, made by a great local artist named Pleum. The best part about the fancy food show is all of the side areas that you can use to spread the word about your products, and learn about others. We had a display in the “What’s New” area at the front of the Javits Center (as seen below), and also provided lychee brownies for the tropical fruit tasting event. It was a nice way to get the word out about Amai beyond the booth. If you are in the business I highly recommend you also attend the Fancy Food Show seminars. They are very informative and it’s a good way to meet other people in the industry.
To track sales leads we invested in an electronic scanning machine, where you insert badges from attendees interested in getting more information. Within the first day we had filled our bucket with good, qualified sales leads. Surprisingly we even took orders at the show. The most important thing in doing a show is being able to follow up on sales leads once the show is over. This has been a little difficult to do with the change in ownership over the last few weeks, but I am beginning to smooth things out now. Thanks to the show we shipped our first order to California, which I’m thrilled about since it’s my home state! You can now find us at Village Market in the Ferry Building and on California Street in San Francisco. More orders across the US are to come.
We met people from around the world that were interested in our products and had several people tell us it was the only new and interesting thing they had seen at the show. I also got to meet several Lovescool readers and other bloggers which was an unexpected surprise. I even got to do an interview for a radio program in Pittsburgh called On the Menu. With Andrew and I both being CMU grads, we were excited to be on a Pittsburgh program.
After selling for three days I thought the hardest part had been done, but I was wrong. Once the show was over, it was like the school bell had rang and every kid was running for the door. The difference was these kids weren’t carrying backpacks, they were carrying plastic displays, samples, furniture, and everything else you can think of, down an out-of-service escalator into an unbearably crowded parking lot. It was amazing how inconsiderate people were. I saw people take their buckets of pasta, crackers and whatever else was left over and dump it on the floor. No attempt was made to put anything in a trash can. It was a free for all. Luckily this meant we could get away with carrying our big table out ourselves, without having to wait for the union guys. My dad pushed through traffic as only he can do, and got the van into the parking lot where we were able to load up and get out within a few hours.
Overall the show was a great success and proved that our concept was something interesting in the market. It was a big step for us, and I think we will look back on it as an pivotal day in the company’s history. The next fancy food show will be held in San Francisco from January 21-23. 2007. If we have new products ready I would consider exhibiting, but for now I will plan to be an attendee and take some time to enjoy the show.