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Michael Adams Green Mountain Mustard and Gredio

Michael Adams, Owner
Green Mountain Mustard & Gredio

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5 Lessons Learned at the Vermont Specialty Foods Fall Conference

Conferences are either a dud or amazing. You either learn a ton or leave thinking you’ve just wasted your hard earned cash and an entire day of sales opportunities.

The trick is to find the conferences that give you the biggest bang for your buck. And the Vermont Specialty Foods conferences are full of amazing information.

A few weeks ago, I attended the Fall conference for the Vermont Specialty Foods Association. (With the icy conditions, it should have been the winter conference). There were about 30 food producers there – from people just starting their specialty food businesses to industry veterans whose food companies topped a million dollars in revenue.

As you can imagine, I learned a lot. There were sessions on HACCP planning, marketing, distribution, and more. I took a whole bunch of notes and want to pass on what I learned:

1. Trade spending needs to happen (but return needs to be measured)

The presentation on trade-spending blew my mind. I didn’t know what trade-spending included. It’s everything that you do – like marketing, sales, and promotions – to increase sales of your product in retail stores. That means sales, coupons, trade-shows, point-of-purchase displays, etc. And you need to spend money on all of this. Spending $0 on marketing is easy, but you may not move product as fast.

Once you start spending money on promotions and such, you need to measure what happens after you run promotions. For example, did you run an ad in a tourist magazine? How can you track that traffic from the ad and the sales that were generated? Or, what about a coupon? Can you track that? Measuring helps you discover what works and what doesn’t in your marketing. Start measuring right now!

2. HACCP planning is important for small and large food businesses

Yeah – it’s the boring stuff. But, at the same time, it’s the stuff that’s going to prevent you from killing people. HACCP planning stands for hazard analysis and critical control points. This means you need to analyze every step of your production process from receiving your ingredients all the way through sending product out of your facility.

For example, critical control points for our mustard are pH and fill temperature. But, if you add in hazard analysis, it could be spoiled ingredients, a broken fridge, or cracked glass jars. There’s a lot that could happen. And regardless of the size of your business, you need to know how each event impacts your business.

3. Working with large food distributors can get complex

The distributor presentation is where I found the most value. I’m currently working on building my business through distributors so it was great to see what to expect. One thing I learned was the amount of discounting you have to do. Distributors service thousands of accounts with tens of thousands of products. That means your product is just going to sit there if it isn’t promoted (see #1 again).

Discounting means scan-downs or off-invoice discounts. It could also mean a myriad of other discounts, but it’d take forever to go over all of them. An example of a scan-down is $1/unit for a certain period of time. However many units you sell, the distributor sends you an invoice. Off invoice is when you actually take $1.00 off the invoice. This means the discount can be passed through the channel which means an increased discount for the end consumer.

See how this gets crazy? And this is only the beginning – it could be it’s own blog post.

4. Know your product line like the back of your hand

I know you love creating food products. I do, too. But, I also run a small business. You do, too. That means you need to do everything a business person does — product creation, production planning, product costing, sales reports — everything.

While I know numbers are important, it was reinforced at the conference. Know what product costs you the most (and least) money to make, what your most popular flavor is, and how it impacts your bottom line.

5. Build a network of food producers to bounce ideas off of

I sat down and immediately introduced myself to the girl behind me. She was the Sales Manager for Liz Lovely Cookies. I also connected with my friend Stan from Three Sprigs Farm, got introduced to the Director of Marketing for Vermont, and finally met one of my distributors face-to-face (I know, right?). My point?

Build and nurture a network. Find food producers to share industry knowledge with, bounce ideas off of, or just connect with to get through the lows and support the highs or running a food business solo.

I loved the conference. I met new people, re-connected with already established relationships, and even got a delicious catered lunch from our site host. I’m looking forward to the summer conference to learn even more about the growing specialty food industry.

Does your state have a food conference? Have you attended educational seminars in your area to help grow your food business? Let me know what you’ve learned below.


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