Same material,special food

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 14, 2008

COURTLAND—If diversity of products and networking among colleagues are required to be successful in the business world, then a new program set up by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services—and embraced by a handful of local businesses—seems to fit that bill.

The program is aimed at the niche of specialty food producers and promotes the use of standard Virginia commodities presented in a different combination in an effort to delve into an untapped reservoir of products that could benefit from a cooperative sales presence.

In short, it is a concerted effort to sell more items grown in Virginia.

The recently formed Specialty Food Advisory Committee met most recently in Richmond in mid-May, a session that included a Virginia-only food industry trade show that produced four winners who presented new products derived from traditional sources.

But the advisory committee, formed in September, has been charged with advising the state’s agriculture department on marketing and promoting the specialty food industry. Another aspect of the board is to educate other manufacturers in the intracacies of selling their products.

On that board are Jane Riddick-Fries of The Peanut Patch in Courtland and Scott D. Stephens, director of sales for Virginia Diner in Wakefield.

“So we’re trying to get the word out,” said Riddick-Fries, “that we’re working in the best interests of all manufacturers.”

One of the early goals of the committee is to get a handle of just how big the specialty foods market is in Virginia, and a survey of the economic impact of the industry is in the works. The survey is intended, Riddick-Fries said, “to put a value on the industry.”

According to Todd P. Haymore, VDACS commissioner, “Specialty foods are an important component of the agricultural industry in Virginia. They are an excellent way to add value to basic agricultural commodities, they increase the diversity of Virginia products, and they provide local, regional and state-recognized products and brands.

“Specialty foods range from individual products such as flavored teas, baked goods, peanuts, sauces, or jams and jellies, to already-prepared meals or mixes which consumers use to enhance their meals. They are important outlets for farm products and enhance Virginia’s reputation as a producer of fine and gourmet food products.”

At the May conference, a moderator and a panel discussed what makes a successful trade show from the point of view of both buyers and sellers.

In another panel discussion, representatives from can, box, label, packaging supplies, corrugated and printed carton companies offered cost-saving ideas and answered questions related to packaging alternatives that can help sell the product.

The committee, said Riddick-Fries, will “brainstorm what the future of specialty foods holds.”

Specifically, the committe’s work will also include methods to joins forces to develop advantages in advertising, marketing and to share information among those in the field.

“Networking — it gets talked about a lot, but it’s a huge part of business,” said Riddick-Fries. “Instead of recreating the wheel, somebody else has either done it or is going through it.”

By having like-minded manufacturers organized, Riddick-Fries said “I can pick up the phone” and be in touch with another resource.

That could include tips on such things as which trucking company is doing good work, or what others are doing to combat high fuel prices which affect the cost of getting raw materials or the increasing cost of shipping.

And the approach could open a boulevard to provide statewide advertising.

Plus, it keeps sellers and buyers in touch.

“It’s also a selling opportunity, as well,” she said.

According to the VDACS, the Advisory Committee is composed of 11 voting members who are knowledgeable about specialty food issues in Virginia. Members represent retailers, the Food Science Department at Virginia Tech and specialty food processors.

One member is an at-large member who is an advocate for the specialty food industry. Members will advise VDACS regarding specialty food programs and will assist VDACS’ Division of Marketing in the growth of the Specialty Food Industry in Virginia. The Committee also will plan an annual educational conference with the support of the Virginia Food and Beverage Association.

Appointed to two-year terms are:

aJane Riddick-Fries, FERIDES, Courtland – representing large specialty food producers

aG. Willis Logan, President, Virginia Wine of the Month Club, Stanardsville – representing the retail industry

aSamuel W. Edwards, III, President, S. Wallace Edwards & Sons, Inc., Surry – representing large producers

aJeff Bateman, Integrity Food Group, LLC, West Point – representing small producers

aRobert C. Williams, Assistant Professor, Department of Food Science and Technology, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg – representing Virginia Tech

Appointed to one-year terms are:

aPeter Pruden, III, Co-owner, Taste Unlimited, Virginia Beach – representing retailers

aScott D. Stephens, Director of Sales, Virginia Diner, Inc., Wakefield – representing large producers

aDave Ottaway, Virginia Food and Beverage Association, Goochland – representing the Association

aJim Foster, Alpak Container Corporation, Chesapeake – representing suppliers

aOliver Turner, The Virginia Chutney Company, Washington – representing small producers

aRachel Graves, Graves Mountain Lodge, Syria – representing advocates of the specialty food industry