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Natural Products Expo West

When: March 9-13
Where: Hilton Anaheim & Anaheim Convention Center, Anaheim
Info: expowest.com


An annual trade show in Anaheim is The Place to go each year for artisan food makers. But this year one pack of attendees will be jointly touting where they’re coming from: Sonoma County.

Two dozen of the county’s food and natural products makers this week are heading to the Natural Products Expo West with a plan to collaborate. The businesses will add signs to their floor show booths that feature the hashtag, #SavorSonomaCounty.

Their plans include encouraging attendees to post photos of the local booths to Instagram as part of a scavenger hunt. The attendees also can rub elbows Saturday at a social mixer that features some of the county’s artisan food pioneers and next generation of producers.

“People really want to know where their food comes from and how it’s made,” said Helen Lentze, director of communications at goat cheese maker Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery. The local businesses wanted to “promote the fact that we’re from Sonoma County.”

The trade expo began in 1981 and now draws more than 70,000 attendees. Local food makers describe the show, which runs Thursday through Sunday, as the biggest of its kind in the United States.

“You can’t be in this industry and not go to that show,” said Sean Lovett, owner and CEO of beverage maker Revive Kombucha.

Those heading to Anaheim this week include leaders of such longtime North Bay businesses as Clover-Stornetta Farms, Straus Family Creamery, La Tortilla Factory, Amy’s Kitchen and Alvarado St. Bakery. Those companies and others are credited with taking the region’s longtime agricultural heritage and helping build a reputation for tasty, wholesome food.

“To me it’s so inspiring what has been done here and what continues to be done,” said Serafina Palandech, president of Hip Chick Farms, which sells organic chicken fingers and other poultry products. “I want Sonoma to be known as the organic, natural foods county.”

Federal economists estimate that the combined wine, beverage and food industry amounts to about 5 percent of the local economy, said Sonoma State University economics professor Robert Eyler.

And the farm-to-table nature of many local food and restaurant businesses involves a vertical integration of processing steps that isn’t so concentrated in many other industries.

“It’s sort of like a dirt-to-mouth relationship,” Eyler said.

About three years ago, Sonoma County BEST, an economic development organization, helped local food makers form their own Food Industry Group. Lentze, the chair of the group’s marketing committee, last fall led a meeting to explore possible collaboration at the Anaheim trade show. More than two dozen people showed up to learn more, and the group’s efforts soon began in earnest.

Plans include a social media scavenger hunt where the winner will receive a $500 gift card and county “care package.” And Saturday’s social hour gathering, to be held at the booth of specialty tea maker Traditional Medicinals, will feature a “meet and greet” with such local food pioneers as Albert Straus of Straus Family Creamery and Jennifer Bice of Redwood Hill.

Participants said the local companies are trying to change the food industry and make it more healthy and environmentally sustainable.

“Not only are we saying we’re from the same area but we share the same values,” said Janae Lloyd, organizational development manager for World Centric, a Petaluma company that sells compostable food containers.

The growth in local food producers means “there’s never a shortage of brands coming up the ranks,” said Neal Gottlieb, founder of organic Three Twins Ice Cream.

“The North Bay is definitely a force,” he said.

The Anaheim contingent includes a sizable number of next-generation producers. Here is a look at four of them:

Three Twins Ice Cream

Three Twins Ice Cream is bringing some new products to Anaheim, including a “sundae cone” filled with organic vanilla ice cream, coated with organic chocolate and topped with organic peanuts. Think of the Nestle Drumstick, but all organic.

“It’s really a groundbreaking product,” founder Neal Gottlieb said. He plans to give away 2,000 to 3,000 such cones at the trade show and hopes the product will be available this spring in select county supermarkets.

The organic ice cream maker got its start in 2005 with a scoop shop in Marin County. The company moved to Petaluma and opened its first plant there in 2010. Four years later it expanded with a second factory in Sheboygan, Wis.

Its ice cream is now available from retailers in all 50 states and also at six scoop shops in the Bay Area and one in Santa Monica. Revenues last year hit $11.3 million and enjoyed “strong double-digit growth,” Gottlieb said. The company has about 100 employees.

Three Twins will continue to focus on “making great delicious products” with organic ingredients in flavors that people want, Gottlieb said. He wants his customers to feel that they “don’t have to give up anything” in order to eat organic.

The 38-year-old Gottlieb is currently a contestant on “Survivor 2016.” While he can’t give away any details, he did say that the filming was “incredibly fun and incredibly difficult.” Now that he gets to watch the show with friends, it’s just fun.

World Centric

It doesn’t make food, but Petaluma’s World Centric supplies all sort of compostable containers, utensils and bags to restaurants, school cafeterias and other entities in the food service sector.

World Centric began as a nonprofit based in Silicon Valley in 2004. In 2013 it became a public benefit corporation owned by founder and CEO Aseem Das. The business moved to Petaluma less than three years ago. A key reason is the community and its businesses and farms are environmentally sensitive, said Janae Lloyd, the company’s organizational development manager.

“We wanted to be in an environment that shared our values,” she said.

Its compostable products, including cups, plates, trays and utensils, are made from such plant-based products as wheat straw, miscanthus and corn sugar and starch.

The company has 32 employees, including 20 in Petaluma. World Centric doesn’t release revenues, but it does donate at least a quarter of its profits to charitable groups, including those working with orphans or in education and environment. The company also purchases offsets for its carbon use.

“If we do the right thing,” Lloyd said, “the profits will follow.”

Hip Chick Farms

Sales soared last year to $1 million, but the owners of Sebastopol’s Hip Chick Farms encountered a new problem: Running out of capital. The gross profit margin was too low for the maker of natural and organic frozen chicken entrées. At times, co-owner Serafina Palandech wasn’t sure if the business would survive.

“It was like very, very scary,” said Palandech, who owns the business with partner and chef Jen Johnson.

One long-awaited investment deal fell through a year ago, but Hip Chicks was able to bring on more investors and members to its board, including John Foraker, president of Annie’s Inc., a natural baked goods maker. The crisis is past, Palandech said, and the company expects to double sales this year.

Its products are available in Whole Foods and Safeway stores and they will launch in Target stores this spring.

Hip Chick has four employees working with the owners. As the company grows, it needs to ensure it puts out the best possible quality product, Palandech said. It also needs to spread the word on what it offers to busy moms and families.

“Today,” she said, “our biggest challenge is helping folks find us.”

Revive Kombucha

For Revive Kombucha, Sonoma County showed it has “rich soil” for growing food companies, said owner and CEO Sean Lovett.

Lovett started taking his fermented tea drinks to local farmers markets in 2010. With the help of local independent markets, the company got a foothold and today is selling products along the West Coast, plus some Rocky Mountain states and in Texas.

Revive now employs 30 workers. The company moved to Petaluma last fall and plans to double sales this year. It does not disclose annual sales.

Along with its original black tea brew, the business offers kombucha blends made with coffee, hibiscus, yerba mate and orange peel.

Revive has long run its own recycling program for its glass containers, returning $2 for a 16-ounce bottle and $4 for a 64-ounce growler. But that effort requires considerable manpower. Lovett estimates the company has devoted about 45 percent of its time to manufacturing and distributing drinks “and about 55 percent has been spent on the bottle exchange program.”

The exchange program will remain in Northern California, he said, but elsewhere Revive drinks will be available only in 11-ounce recyclable glass bottles. As the company grows, Lovett said, a continuing challenge will be to tell why U.S. consumers “should care about a kombucha brewery in Sonoma County.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit