The Expo Experience: Through the Eyes of an Industry Newbie

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Rachel Appleton with Bob Moore of Bob’s Red Mill.

Stepping into Natural Products Expo East as a newbie to the industry was thrilling. With just 9 months in the industry as a writer for WholeFoods Magazine, I’ve learned so much about trends, goals, and the future of the natural and organic products. Attending Expo met my expectations. It’s more than products—what I learned from Expo is that natural and organic is a mindset and, in some cases, a goal. 

Over the course of three days, I talked with industry veterans of over 30 years, and first-timers like myself. I learned about the CBD and Hemp Boom and sustainability initiatives, and spoke to positive and excited retailers trying to navigate the seemingly-unending floor plan. 

To my surprise, I was also able to take an Apple Cider Vinegar shot with Katy Perry at the Bragg booth. This was an ultimate fan moment for me. I asked her whether she’d be writing a song for Bragg. (If she does, we  can say I was the first to break the news, right here, right now!) 

Heading out of the hotel into the convention center one morning, I met an industry celebrity: the one and only, Bob Moore, founder of Bob’s Red Mill. Yes. He looked exactly like the logo. In our short conversation as we walked over to the center, we discussed farms and his years of experience in the industry. 

 

Two Expo First Timers Talk

The exhibitors were fantastic, and the attendees had a lot on their minds. One retailer sat down with me to discuss his Expo experience: Cary Junior, general manager of SEMPA Markets (SouthEast Michigan Producers Association), a small farm coop with important goals and big plans (follow them on facebook at @sempafarmers). In the matter of a couple minutes, Junior and I had delved into a hot topic industry experts have been trying to solve for years: food deserts. 

As a Detroit native, Junior knows about food deserts and the mindset of low income populations. “We’re typically working with low income residents who receive food benefits, and who have to spend it all before the end of the month,” says Junior. “Our plan is to create multiple markets that are open 7 days a week, which will give consumers a chance to shop more conveniently, and learn about the importance of healthy eating. We want to change mindsets.”

Selling some of the new trendy products seen at Expo won’t be a priority for SEMPA stores just yet. “A lot of the products I’m seeing here, I wouldn’t purchase in the beginning. By opening up small co-ops, we are trying to get back to the fundamentals. Having healthy food, understanding how eating healthy will keep you out of the hospital is what we’re looking to focus on,” Junior told me. Feeling impressed and inspired by the Expo displays, Junior sees offering the trends as a direction, not an immediate action. The community Junior is targeting may not be ready for these products yet, he says. “We’re seeing the trends, but in the areas I work in, you’re not experiencing the trends. There is a demand for healthy foods, but if a retailer can’t make a return, they aren’t taking the risk.”

Listen to Cary Junior discuss the  issue in more detail in his “Change Food” talk.  

 

An Industry Vet Sees A Sustainable Future 

As an industry veteran, April Myers, manager at The Health Concern, has attended Natural Products Expo East since she was an infant. Similar to WholeFoods’ own Heather Wainer, natural products have always been a family focus for Meyers. The Health Concern, based out of Baltimore, sells supplements, herbs and grocery products and is approaching its 50 year anniversary. This year, Myers was super excited about roll-on essential oils, and of course, her favorite—Prince of Peace Ginger Chews. 

Something Myers would like to see: “Reduction of packaging should continue. I’ve been seeing that here—a focus on what’s ecological and reusable. There’s a focus on things that don’t need packaging at all like shampoo bars, which are more sustainable. Just trying to keep things out of the landfills.”

 

My Take

Overall, Expo East gave me hope. With an overwhelming amount of Millennials working the booths and walking the aisles, I felt excited for what my generation will accomplish. At the Organic Trade Association dinner on Wednesday, September 11, at the historic Belvedere Hotel, industry leaders listened to Organic Leaders who are making real change. Nate Powell-Palm, owner of Cold Spring Organics in Montana—and under 30—energetically spoke of the simple joys of loving what you do while nourishing people and the environment when he accepted the rising star award. 

From my take on it, the natural and organic industry is just getting started. 

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