A look through the "Food Lens"

The Lempert Report
March 25, 2015

What I saw at Expo West and SXSW

Expo West, held the first week in March, was a terrific and positive kick-off to the 2015 food shows. Record attendance of over 70,000 and enough exhibitors to swell the walls of the over 800,000 square foot of exhibit space to include outdoor food trucks, tents and most of the ballrooms of the adjacent hotels. On an excitement scale of 0 to 10, there is little doubt the Expo was a 9.7! Food shows need to be a celebration, exciting and fun.

South Bites at SxSW is now in its second year. This “community of innovators through the lens of food” promises to be the next important food show. This past week, Addie Broyles of the Austin American-Statesman and I presented Grocery Wars: The Future of Buying Food to a standing room only crowd which overflowed into the hallway hoping to join the discussion; until fire regulations restricted the hall be cleared.

Grocery Wars’ audience was not what you would have expected – yes there were the food artisans, the chefs and the techies – but there were also the future leaders from retailers, including Safeway/Albertsons, Whole Foods and Kroger, and brands as diverse as ConAgra Foods, Lighthouse and local Austin based start-ups.

What made my three days at SxSW so exhilarating was the collaborative energy and openness to explore what could be.

And SxSW is all about building long term relationships. No suits. No plastic looking models hired for the day (except for one mass market beer brand). No one looking at badges to see corporate titles. No one looking at his or her watch or cell phone to see when the show floor would finally close for the day. Instead of those closed door private dinners limited to a few top execs, I found scores of sponsored events throughout the streets – openly inviting all to join in for free food, free drinks, great music, and to play the soon to be released video games – sponsored by the likes of AT&T, Yahoo, Samsung to the Kickstarter companies hoping to be the next Apple Watch. Their goal was to meet as many people as possible and to share their brand experience, and build a long-term relationship for the future.

The SxSW trade show floor packs and gets into overdrive one’s senses and brain…and made me wonder when “the last time I had this much fun and excitement on a trade show floor.” I found a device on farmlands that detect temperature, weather conditions, soil conditions and water also include cameras to allow consumers connected to a social network the ultimate in Ag transparency and connects them to the farmers. And an electronic circuit printed on paper using metal particles to give farmers real-time measures of soil moisture for irrigation via radio waves. GMO Answers was there, with undeniably one of the largest booths on the show floor (bigger than NASA) that opened the discussion to these future leaders and included live corn and cotton crops to show first hand the visual and yield differences between GMO and nonGMO crops.

These two shows are quite different – both they both are full of excitement, relationship building and exploring what’s new. What can we learn?

Yes, I have sipped the Kool-Aid, but this time it is full of nutrients without any added sugars or artificial ingredients.