Merely having a killer product doesn’t guarantee you success in any business. But the food business can be especially hard to break into. “It’s one thing to have your friends say you should really sell that hot sauce or jam or kimchi. It’s another thing entirely to try to bring a product to market,” says Zoie Glass, owner of Lucille’s Kitchen and co-founder of Midwest Pantry.
Many local food producers get their start at Twin Cities farmers markets, which can be a great way to develop a following. But after a couple of seasons braving the cold, heat, and rain, many start to think there has to be a better way. Thanks to Glass and her Midwest Pantry partner, Chad Gillard, there is.
Midwest Pantry brings local food producers and wholesale buyers together. Since 2013, one way they’ve done that is at their Local Food & Gifts Shows. The 2015 holiday show takes place on August 10, and this year, for the first time, Midwest Pantry sponsored the Top of the Shelf Awards in conjunction with the event.
On a steamy day last week, a panel of local luminaries, many of them food entrepreneurs themselves, gathered at the new digs of Chowgirls Killer Catering in northeast Minneapolis to sample local products ranging from granola to gelato. Proving that Brooklyn and Portland got nothing on us, judges sweated, sipped, and sampled 200 products to come up with seven winners, representing the best of the Twin Cities’ local food producers. The winning products ranged from sunflower oil to sauerkraut.
Curly Girlz Candy from Medford took home the Rookies award, for, as you might expect, best newcomer, with their honey-based sea salt caramel covered in bitter chocolate.
When everyone from your roommate to your mom is eating kimchi, you know probiotics are hot. Fierce Ferments, based in Northfield, is filling that niche with its raw, hand-cut kimchi and sauerkraut. They took home the Shooting Stars award, for a product released within the last 12 months. This was the largest category, which bodes well for fans of local food as these products become more widely available.
Smude Oil from Pierz won the Shelf Classics award, which goes to an existing product that still packs that wow factor years after its debut. They won for their cold-pressed, infused sunflower oils. Their newest flavor is a fiery pepper-infused version. Wow indeed.
The Zero Flour Power award for best gluten-free product went to Two Gelato Guys from St. Louis Park, which makes gelato and sorbet in artisan flavors like Shell’s chimney sweep beer and blood orange.
But it wasn’t all about food. The Good Enough to Eat, But Don’t award gives a shout-out to non-consumable products. There was a tie in this category, between suds! Bath & Body from North Mankato and Create Laser Arts from Minneapolis. If you’ve ever dreamed of bathing in beer, you’ll understand why the judges were lathered up over suds! soaps made using popular local brews. Create won for its wood, laser-engraved coasters, ornaments, and jewelry.
Mademoiselle Miel from St. Paul won the Hey, Hey Good Lookin’ award for outstanding packaging. As if their bon-bons made with award-winning urban rooftop honey in flavors like smoked honey with scotch aren’t attractive enough already. “I was impressed by the overall quality of the products and packaging,” says Glass. “This new generation of food producers seems to be way ahead in germs of understanding how to make products marketable.”
Wondering how you can get your hands on these products? Sadly, the upcoming Local Food & Gift Show is not open to the public. But you can ask for them at your co-op or neighborhood grocery store and help create demand. And you can support Midwest Pantry and local food producers at two upcoming events. The group’s Local Food Poster Show happens August 4, and features 15-20 limited-edition posters created by local artists and designers to celebrate local food businesses; the proceeds from poster sales go to Free Arts Minnesota to help at-risk youth. And for all your holiday gift needs, check out the Shop Small Holiday Market on November 28.
Oct. 4, 1 p.m. - 4 p.m.
Solar Arts by Chowgirls
711 15th Ave. NE, Minneapolis
Nov. 28, 10 a.m.- 3 p.m.
St. Anthony Community Center
3301 Silver Lake Rd. NE