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Sam Would Be Proud

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Gary A. White, Director Business Retention & Expansion, TRIDEC

I boarded the Airbus A320 bound for Salt Lake City, the first leg of a two-legged journey to San Francisco. It was 6:00 AM, one eye was open, the second barely. The plane was half full or half empty, depending on your point of view. I settled into my aisle seat next to a young lady in her early twenties. She looked up from her phone and said, “hi”. Never being one short of intelligent conversation, I also said, “hi”. She hunkered down and went to sleep. I cracked open, “Community Godfather, How Sam Volpentist shaped the history of Hanford and the Tri-Cities,” by C. Mark Smith.

I live in the Tri-Cities (Richland, Kennewick, Pasco, Washington). I can’t say that I really knew Sam Volpentest, but I did attend a number of meetings where he was present. In 2010 I had the privilege of receiving the Sam Volpentest Entrepreneurial Leadership Award, not because I’ve accomplished anything near what Sam accomplished, but rather, in my opinion, like Sam, I am short, bald and sport a goatee. Sam migrated from Seattle to the heat, desert and isolation (at that time) of the Tri-Cities to start businesses that took advantage of the Manhattan Project economic boom. Sam took a liking to the economic development world and became the driving force for a number of multi-million dollar projects that secured the future of the area. He is a wonderful example of the power of vision, passion, persistence and connections in Washington D.C.

Although the majority of Sam’s efforts were focused on energy, probably because he had a great deal of it, primarily nuclear, he came to realize the valueDSCN0380 of diversification. My trip to San Francisco was a part of that diversification, attending the 40th Winter Fancy Food Show, January 11 – 13 at the Moscone Center, in an effort to develop the specialty food and beverage opportunities in the Columbia Basin. According to the producers of the show, the Specialty Food Association, this was the largest show in its history, bragging of exhibitors from the four corners of the globe, occupying space equivalent to four football fields, exhibiting 80,000 examples of the latest and greatest specialty food and beverage delicacies. I’m not sure if this was an exact count, a task forced upon an unfortunate intern, or an estimate. The top five trends at the show, according to the Association, with examples were:

CHEESE TWISTS…..These are a new twist on an old product: Grilled Bacon Cheeseburger Artisan Cheese (Yancy’s Fancy), Caramel & Cheddar Mix (Angie’s Bomchickapop) and Mr. Cheese O’s (Sonoma Creamery).

BREAKFAST SERVED ALL DAY…..Not exactly waffles with a side order of bacon and eggs for dinner, but close: Bandito Loco Spicy Coffee Beef Jerky (Uncle Andy’s Jerky), Savory Bacon Coconut Chips (Dang Foods) and Strawberry Waffle Wild Milk Chocolate (Chuao Chocolatier).

TIME FOR TURMERIC…..Probably not a word that is on the tip of your tongue, turmeric is a spice grown in India and other tropical regions of Asia with a history of use in herbal remedies: Passion Fruit Ginger Ale with Turmeric (Bruce Cost Ginger Ale), Turmeric Tamari Almonds (Navitas Naturals) and Turmeric Rice (Health Verve).

CRUCIFEROUS CRUSADE…..If you are struggling with eating your vegetables, these products might provide a tasty solution, or they might not: Arugula Cabbage Veggie Krunch (Alive & Radiant), Tamarind Almond Crunch Brussell Bytes (Wonderfully Raw Gourmet) and Broccoli Chips (Creative Snacks).

VANILLA BEAN-ANZA…..I love vanilla, like in ice cream. These products take vanilla to another planet, possibly to another galaxy: Vanilla Bean Cheddar Cheese (Heber Valley Cheese), Enlighten Hemp Milk with Blue-Green Algae and Vanilla (Drink Daily Greens) and White Chocolate with Bourbon Vanilla (Milkboy Swiss Chocolates).

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Tommy Montgomery, Chukar Cherry Company

I was delighted to see two of our Columbia Basin companies exhibiting…..Chukar Cherry Company (Prosser, WA) and Columbia Valley Family Farms (Pasco, WA). TRIDEC and the FABREO Columbia Basin program see specialty food and beverage companies as a tremendous economic development opportunity for our area. Many economic developers don’t, preferring to focus on the large, multi-national companies. It is understandable. The large companies often bring a large number of jobs and taxes to a community. Most specialty food and beverage companies will never be large companies, but they may very well be acquired and become part of a large company family. Specialty food and beverage companies tend to be the risk takers, the visionaries, the trend setters. They develop the concepts that in turn, develop the industry. Be it part of a large corporation or just formulated from Mama’s kitchen, the specialty food and beverage industry is significant and growing.

According to the Specialty Food Association’s, “The State of the Specialty Food Industry 2014,” the industry grew by 18.4% from 2011 – 2013, topping $88.3 billion in 2013. Foodservice accounted for 20.5% of sales while retail accounted for 79.5%. Eighty percent of specialty food manufacturers recorded a profit in 2013. The largest category is cheese and cheese alternatives with $3.99 billion in sales in 2013 and a growth rate of 16.1% between 2011 and 2013. The fastest-growing categories include nut and seed butters (51.6%), eggs (35.9%) and frozen desserts (28.2%).

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Sandy Lehrman (far left) and Crew, Columbia Valley Family Farms

With mainstream supermarkets showing unit sales declining -0.8% from 2011 – 2013, unit sales in specialty food stores grew 2.1% and natural food stores 23.2%. Mainstream supermarkets still account for the majority of the specialty food sales, but they are losing ground from 72.5% in 2011 to 66.9% in 2013. Specialty food stores and natural food stores are taking up the slack, growing from 19.3% in 2011 to 23.6% in 2013 for specialty food stores and 8.2% in 2011 to 9.5% in 2013 for natural food stores.

In all honesty, I don’t believe Sam Volpentest would be overly excited about developing the specialty food and beverage industry. This is an industry you grow brick by brick until you develop a very cool and significant cluster such as in the Napa Valley, California and Boulder, Colorado and developing in the Columbia Basin. I seriously doubt that you would find Sam nibbling away on Tamarind Almond Crunch Brussel Bytes, greatly preferring the best of Italian food, like his mother used to make. I also doubt that Sam would find much comfort in Enlighten Hemp Milk with Blue-Green Algae and Vanilla, preferring his favorite adult beverage, Jack Daniels Whiskey.

Sam was a concrete man; pour it, tilt it, make it big, representing millions of dollars and thousands of jobs. But, Sam was also a realist. If the specialty food and beverage industry was not Sam’s cup of tea (make that green or turmeric ginger) economic development was. I believe Sam would acknowledge the change in the community, the growth in agriculture and the wine industry. He would understand the value of the specialty food and beverage industry as a significant piece of the long-term economic development puzzle of the community he worked so hard for and loved so much. I believe, and serve me another bag of Arugula Cabbage Veggie Krunch if I am wrong, that Sam Would Be Proud!

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