World’s Most Exciting Food & Beverage Region
It was a cold, gray, winter day in early February. Snowflakes were floating through the fog, gently settling to the ground, where they lay unbroken, creating a frosty blanket that crunched under each step. My white Nissan Frontier truck blended nicely with the surroundings. Inside, I was a bundle, wrapped in a heavy overcoat, hat and gloves. My visible breath saluted the fact there was life inside the bundle. I drove to the outside of town, a patchwork of fruit orchards and houses. After a couple of missed turns, I discovered the object of my winter journey, peaking between the charms of various apple trees, secluded, but visible…..Adams Place Country Gourmet. This was my first survey, breaking the ice for a series of surveys that, in turn, launched a food and beverage cluster development program…..FABREO Columbia Basin (www.fabreo.org).
By late July, the weather had turned hot, the desert proudly showing off the contrary side of its multi-dimensional personality. My meeting was in the morning, when the air is fresh, warm and invigorating. I am a better person in July. I am a better person when the day starts out warm and ends up hot. Such is a summer in the Columbia Basin. This was my last Columbia Basin Food & Beverage Processing Survey 2014. My last one-on-one, share your dreams, admit your concerns, boast of your accomplishments, complain about the government and the guy down the road, tell me what to do if not where to go, talk about your plans to expand, the employees you are going to hire, the empire you are going to build…..Survey #71, Sugar Rainbow Cakes. The surveys provided the information and cultivated the relationships that created the foundation to position the Columbia Basin (southeast Washington State) as a globally recognized food and beverage processing region.
Where the Heck is the Columbia Basin?
A short geography lesson. When I refer to the Columbia Basin I am referring to an area where the Columbia, Snake and Yakima rivers meet, swap lies and meander down to the Pacific Owen. This confluence of rivers is firmly anchored by what is imaginatively called the Tri-Cities (Richland, Kennewick and Pasco) as well as West Richland, Benton City and Prosser. The area covers two counties: Benton and Franklin. The Columbia Basin contains some of the most productive farm land in the world and is abundantly blessed with a cooperating climate, abundant water and a whole lot of people that take genius for granted.
Mr. Announcer, the Envelope Please
The Survey Results contribute to a better understanding of the industry, confirm a number of assumptions and clarify development opportunities as well as challenges. Some of the highlights obtained from the surveyed companies include the following:
35% of the food companies are located in Pasco…..41% of the beverage companies (82% are wineries) are in Prosser…..60% of the food companies and 72% of the beverage companies were established between 1990 and 2014…..41% answered regional as their primary market, 30% local, 25% national and 5% international…..33% export…..67% stated that sales are increasing, while only 6% stated that sales are decreasing…..60% listed sales of less than $1,000,000…..46% sell “Direct-To-Consumer” (defined as in-facility sales, club sales and internet sales). The importance of developing the local tourism industry was repeatedly mentioned as a driver for Direct-To-Consumer sales. The on-site restaurant is a growing trend to counter the perceived lack of “boutique restaurants” in the community. 24% have a restaurant on site.
63% have increasing employment needs. The Top Five selected education/training opportunities are: Continuous Improvement, Marketing & Sales, Leadership, Government Relations and Finance. Even though not listed in the Survey, 37% mentioned Hospitality Training as an area of interest.
Based on the Survey Results, the following have been identified as “opportunities” that can be addressed and with the help of the community, both private and public, a can of two of elbow grease and a tad of good fortune, will be accomplished:
#1…..Develop a Hospitality Program, focused on education and training for those interested in a career in the local hospitality industry. The area is fortunate in that Washington State University in Pullman features one of the nation’s top hospitality programs. An effort will be made through flipping a coin, arm wrestling or sweet talk to migrate some of that program to the Washington State University campus in Richland.
#2…..Develop a Culinary School. Many of the processors are engaging in multiple disciplines to grow their businesses including restaurants while new, independent restaurants and chains are continuing to sprout up like mushrooms after a Spring rain, all needing trained culinary professionals.
#3…..Develop a Food Processing Training Program, for students interested in entering the food and beverage processing industry.
#4…..Develop a Technical Skills Training Program, addressing the maintenance and operation’s needs of the area’s large food processors.
#5…..Produce an event featuring locally processed foods and beverages. This “event,” the FABREO Expo, “Featuring Food & Beverage Opportunities in the Columbia Basin,” scheduled for June 12, 2015 is not a traditional trade show, but rather, an “economic development trade show” designed to not only attract food and beverage brokers, distributors, retailers and support organizations, but also investors and developers and, hopefully, a dreamer or two. Initial “verbal marketing” has begun on the Expo. The response has been very positive.
#6…..Develop a public relations program, incorporating social media, to promote the Columbia Basin as a world-class food and beverage processing region. This recommendation has actually been implemented throughout the year with the local media, which has been extremely supportive. In 2015 the program will be rolled out to the regional and national food and beverage trade media.
#7…..Develop the Strategic Gateway concept, positioning the Columbia Basin as the strategic gateway for the food and beverage processing industry between America and Asia. This concept is a natural because of the region’s geographic location and the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma and Sea-Tac Airport providing the shortest ocean and flight times between the United States and major Asian markets. Some of the concept options include:
A) Assisting American food and beverage companies, located in the Columbia Basin, to market to and throughout Asia. B) Recruiting Asian companies to locate in the Columbia Basin and assisting in marketing their products throughout America. C) Establishing cooperative networks between American and Asian support organizations – educational, packaging, research & development, storage and logistics. D) Development of the in-bound Asian food and beverage tourism industry in the Columbia Basin. E) Development of a food and beverage processing themed industrial park featuring food and beverage tourism.
The Strategic Gateway concept depends on developing relationships with appropriate Asian economic development organizations and refining the concept to the benefit of both parties. This will probably be the most challenging of the recommendations, while also providing the greatest potential.
The Columbia Basin Food & Beverage Processing Survey 2014 is, to the best of my knowledge, the most comprehensive endeavor of its kind in the area. The information gleaned is priceless. The relationships developed even more so. Rather than conduct a survey that is presented, stored and forgotten, it is the hope of this writer that the man hours invested and the information received will be used to create one of the most globally recognized food and beverage processing regions in the world. Based on the Survey’s initial community response, the fact that several local and state economic development organizations have already gotten involved and have expressed interest in deeper involvement and the continued support of current and new financial sponsors, I cannot help but be encouraged. The new year provides an amazing opportunity, in an amazing industry, in an amazing community. Stay tuned. Tighten your seatbelts. The ride may be bumpy, but it is guaranteed to be Very Exciting!