The Richmond area and Virginia are full of budding entrepreneurs who have bright ideas for new food and drink products.
Yet taking an interesting food or beverage idea from the concept stage to store shelves or restaurants isn’t easy, and involves navigating a complex maze of regulation, marketing, production and distribution issues.
“It is certainly challenging. It is not cheap and it is not quick,” said Matt Shaffer, co-owner of Shaffer’s Barbecue in Winchester, who started bottling his family’s barbecue sauce two years ago and has been trying to get it onto grocery store shelves.
For many startup food and beverage makers, the biennial Virginia Food & Beverage Expo, held last week at the Greater Richmond Convention Center, is a “coming out” event, where they can showcase their products and perhaps snag some accounts with retailers, restaurateurs and distributors.
Here is a sampling of some of the more than 160 new food and beverage products that entrepreneurs were introducing at last week’s Expo.
Product: Nut-free, non-allergenic snack bars for children and adults.
The story: Rupa Tak, Vineeta Shah and Lauren Elmakis, three Richmond-area moms who have children with allergies, collaborated to create a healthy snack bar made with nut-free, non-allergenic natural ingredients.
At first, they were making snacks just for their own kids. Now, they are trying to make a business out of it.
“We found ourselves having to make products for our kids from scratch, because none of the products in the marketplace had the taste or nutrition that we thought would be good,” said Tak, who brings to the venture a Harvard University business education.
“Then we thought, why not create a product that could help people in similar situations,” she asked.
The trio started developing their snack product as a business in 2016. They are making GoFar snack bars in two flavors — chocolate brownie and oatmeal raisin. The bars have a higher protein content and lower sugar content than other snack bars.
“Our main source for protein is sunflower seeds,” said Shah, a registered dietician. “They are non-allergenic.”
Production: So far, they are making the snack bars in a home kitchen that has been inspected and approved for commercial production by the Virginia Department of Agriculture.
“We are hoping to get to the point where we can outsource,” Elmakis said. “Locally we have had a hard time finding a (commercial) kitchen that would not have the risk of cross-contamination with nuts.”
Availability: The owners are trying to get the product into grocery stores, and possibly as a snack item for schools.
Biggest challenge: “If you are making a natural product like we are, it is the cost of ingredients, and being able to sell your product in a way that you are not losing money,” Tak said. “You are competing against producers who are making thousands of bars.”
Product: Flavored drinking vinegar that can be used as a mixer for a variety of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.
The Story: Midlothian resident Meredyth Archer remembers that her grandmother used to occasionally sip on drinking vinegar.
Contrary to how people might react at first to the notion of vinegar as a beverage, “people have been doing it for centuries,” Archer said. “It came to America with the colonists.”
A particular type of drinking vinegar called Shrub, which has more tang than sourness, is now making a comeback as a mixer for specialty cocktails, she said.
Archer said she came across a raspberry vinegar recipe in a hand-me-down cookbook from the late 1800s. She started making the mixture of vinegar and fruit juice in several flavors, such as grapefruit and cranberry, and selling it to friends and at temporary pop-up shops.
Archer has been in business on a limited scale just since September, “but I have been making this for a few years and sharing it with friends.”
Now, she wants to introduce the product to the wider market.
Last week, Mother Shrub won the award for best new overall product among the hundreds showcased at the Virginia Food and Beverage Expo.
Production: She uses a commercial kitchen. Archer sells her product in bottles with a label created by her husband, Fielding Archer, a professional artist.
Biggest challenge: “It took me a while to send in my paperwork because I wasn’t sure what the approval process was to have a product that could be sold in the marketplace, other than just being made at home in your kitchen,” she said. “Once I met with a kitchen inspector — they are so nice, they want to help you succeed — the challenge was just having the courage to go for it, just to put it out there for a wider audience. It is a little bit scary.”
“I have had fun making this and sharing it with people. I love to see people enjoy it,” Archer said. “It started as a hobby and I would like to grow it and see it in stores.”
Website: www.mothershrub.com (under construction)
Texas Beach Bloody Mary Mix
Product: Bloody Mary mix
The story: College roommates Austin Green and Greg White have worked as bartenders and were not satisfied with a lot of Bloody Mary cocktail mixes. So the Richmond residents decided to come up with their own mix.
“It started as a kitchen sink kind of thing,” Green said.
After some trial-and-error, they created a vegan version of the tomato juice-based mix that goes down savory on the front end of the palate with a spicy kick on the back.
Partnering with their friend Rob Wooten, who does graphic design work for the startup business, they introduced Texas Beach Bloody Mary Mix in early 2015.
The name was inspired not by the state, but by the James River Park System’s Texas Beach area along the Kanawha Canal.
The mix is being sold to about 100 independent retail stores and restaurants, mostly in central Virginia, but the co-owners want to expand that.
Texas Beach Bloody Mary Mix won the best new beverage award at the Virginia Food and Beverage Expo last week.
Production: A co-packer in Virginia Beach makes the product. “There really isn’t a facility capable of making it here in Richmond,” Green said.
Biggest Challenge: Getting startup capital, and distribution have been difficult, White said. “We’re doing our own distribution at the moment,” he said.
Shaffer’s Barbecue Sauce
Product: Bottled, family-recipe barbecue sauce
The story: Matt Shaffer’s grandfather, John Shaffer, started cooking barbecue for various fundraisers in Winchester in 1952.
That eventually grew into a catering business, which his father, George Shaffer, took over in the 1970s, along with opening a deli.
Matt Shaffer and his wife, Julie, expanded the business by starting a food truck that sells the barbecue. They also started bottling the family’s vinegar-based sauce and rub two years ago and selling it online and at independent stores.
Shaffer wants to get the sauce into more grocery stores.
To help market the product, he applied for and received a “Virginia’s Finest” label, which requires a review process by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service to make sure the product meets quality standards.
“It is hard for us to compete against the big guys,” in the barbecue sauce industry, he said. “So Virginia’s Finest gives us a platform to get our name out there and tell our story.”
Production: A contract bottling company makes and bottles the sauce for retail sale. “Most sauce makers do that, because of the requirements that have to be met,” Shaffer said.
Biggest challenge: The sauce market is a crowded market, and getting a new sauce on store shelves is very competitive, Shaffer said.
“My challenge is going to be getting into grocery store chains,” he said. “I want to be in two grocery store chains this year. You can always find individual stores willing to carry it. The chains only review sauces once a year, so you have to find out what month they review and then give them your sauce.”