Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Pittsburgh food businesses angle for their big break at the summer Fancy Food Show in New York City

After a solid decade in the chocolate business, Nina Midgley Kelman thought she had heard every imaginable question about her signature Mountain Magic bites at My Favorite Sweet Shoppe in Collier or local craft shows and events like Yinzerfest.

Then she brought the sweet and crunchy confection to last week’s Fancy Food Show in New York City. The buyers, brokers, distributors and other industry professionals who attended the Specialty Food Association’s 68th summer show at the Javits Center on June 23-25 weren’t asking much about calories or shelf life. A few asked whether she had gluten-free options.

“But a lot of people also asked if we were kosher” or non-GMO, Kelman recalls, which kind of threw her. “And for whatever reason, we also got asked a lot if we shipped to Canada.”

Then again, that was the point for Kelman and other Pittsburgh food purveyors who attended the trades-only show — to learn how to grow their food businesses beyond the bounds of Western Pennsylvania.

Like Kelman, Jamal “Uncle Jammy” Etienne-Harrigan was hoping to find a distributor who could get the hot sauces and rubs he started making in 2015 and selling in Giant Eagle stores in 2020 into the hands of a wider audience.

He was joined by Mike and Diane Perella of Baldwin Borough, whose end-of-the-season garden experiment in 2012 became a booming family business. Their habanero-based Two Ugly Mugs salsa is now sold in more than 1,000 stores across the U.S., including Walmart, Whole Foods and Giant Eagle — and they want to get even bigger.

“We want to be the Pittsburgh salsa,” says Matt Perella, their son and director of operations.

Candy makers Don and Laura Ross were there for the first time with the “Little Dangers” almond English toffee they make and sell at The Toffee House in Washington, Pa. Laura started the company in 2002 as a way to earn some extra money at craft shows. Her toffee really took off after it was featured on Food Network’s “Recipe for Success” in 2005. Their candy is now available at Whole Foods and Market District as well as at small boutiques. Their corporate business is also strong.

“We do a ton of toffee every 2½ days during the holiday season,” says Laura.

Gosia’s Pierogies, which arrived at Ligonier Country Market back in 2001 and now produces thousands of traditional Polish pierogi each day at its Latrobe factory for giant food companies such as Sysco, was there with a big advantage: Co-owner Terry Rawecki did the show last year and knew what to expect (Taste sensory overload!).

Stationed in adjoining booths in the show’s State Pavilion on Level 1, the food entrepreneurs arrived at the sprawling convention center along the Hudson River on June 22, and had to be unpacked and ready to go by 4 p.m. for the show’s 8:30 a.m. start the next day.

That is except for Jon Mosholder of Bumbleberry Farms, whose business has been part of the show since 2015, and proprietors of Liokareas Olive Oil, whose booth was located upstairs on the more posh Level 3. Their space came courtesy of a grant provided by the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission and administered by the University of Pittsburgh’s Small Business Development Center.

This is the third year that Pitt has sent local food makers to the boutique food show, says organizer Brent Rondon, who for years has helped small businesses get off the ground as senior management consultant for international trade at the development center, which is part of Pitt’s Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence.

Some grant recipients, including Etienne-Harrigan, who he met at a “Doing Business with Pitt” informational session for small businesses, have an established relationship with Rondon. Others were approached out of the blue because Rondon liked what they produced or had heard good things about them.

He recruited The Toffee House in early 2024 after meeting them at Washington County Chamber of Commerce’s grand opening at Southpointe (they were vendors) and reached out to My Favorite Sweet Shoppe at South West Regional Chamber of Commerce executive director Mandi Pryor’s suggestion.

The only requirements are that the business is based in Pennsylvania, makes foods or beverages that “exemplify quality, innovation, and style” and are  “defined by originality, authenticity, ethnic or cultural origin, specific processing, ingredients, limited supply, distinctive use, extraordinary packaging, and/or specific channel of distribution or sale,” per SFA rules.

“We are not the ones who decide” who gets to go, says Rondon. “We send samples to the show, and they decide if it’s ‘fancy.’”

The $4,500 grant only covers the cost of the booth, so attendees must pay their own traveling expenses and also produce thousands of samples to hand out during the show. That can prove hard for a small business, so “they really have to plan ahead with their financing,” Rondon says, or find additional grants.

The main goal, of course, is to help business owners meet food distributors that can get them into more stores. That includes making a good impression on Market District senior director Paul Abbott, who was walking the floor with his team and oversees buying for the grocery store’s specialty items.

This is no small thing, because “every time we come, we find something,” says Abbott, who has worked for the grocery chain for more than 30 years, and helped open its first two Market District stores in 2006.  “When we leave, we will have well over 100 possibilities to be vetted down.”

Known for its innovative food items  —- specialty and natural foods account for 18 percent of sales at Market District stores  — the chain has an intense focus on local products, with hundreds of regional suppliers. So to catch a conversation with Abbott, who was a 2024 Leadership Award Winner For Outstanding Buyer at this year’s show, would be a big step forward.

Rondon and co-organizers Jackie Pacheco and Rena Belshe of SPC want attendees to experience industry trends firsthand and see what their competitors are doing. They also want them to meet and talk to their neighbors to ferret out any opportunities as a supplier.

“We want our businesses to go global,” says Rondon. And with more than 2,300 exhibitors from 56 countries in attendance, “this show is perfect for that.”

Occasionally, a grant recipient is rejected by SFA because they don’t have the right packaging or don’t meet certain guidelines. (For instance, foods containing CBD or THC are prohibited.)

Two years ago, Robinson-based Smileycookie.com, which makes personalized Smiley Cookies for gifts and events, learned they had to individually wrap their cookies for distribution. This year, Kelman, who initially offered her chocolate bark for sale in white paper bags, had a similar issue. She had to work with Prizum Creative to repackage the candy in new retail-ready bags that included nutritional information.

She also developed new signage and put together a full-size parting gift for buyers who showed true interest.

“You’re nervous, because you always have fear of what you don’t know,” Kelman admits with a laugh, “and going from marketing to the public to corporations is a different level of selling.”

Diane Perella is hoping the fact that their salsas offer a taste of sweet before the heat of habanero sets in will prove enticing to distributors. They also have a killer of a label featuring father and son that’s not only fun— they were enjoying adult beverages when they came up with it — but tells the story of the family business in a very personal way. Or as Mike Perella likes to ask, “Would you ever think two ugly mugs like us would have a company?”

The family is working harder than ever at what was supposed to be a fun retirement job, as they still do all of their own local deliveries from where the salsa is packed in Punxsutawney. The three Perellas unloaded 65 cases from the back of their Nissan SUV at Three Rivers Grown in Lawrenceville for distribution a week before the show.

Rawecki, a deaf woman who is co-owner of Gosia’s Pierogies, was lucky in that her booth secured an enviable spot at the end of the aisle where attendees had more room to stop, sample and chat.

It was the same for deaf-owned business Bumbleberry Farms’ booth, where bottles of the Hot Honey the farm started selling last year sat proudly on display next to the new Peach Vanilla Honey Cream Spread it just released in April. It’s already a best seller.

“We’re ready to take the next step,” says Mosholder.

Rawecki, whose sister-in-law and product namesake, Gosia, flew in from Poland to lend a hand, was quick to agree.

“I want to work on expanding my business by making connections and networking,” she signed through her interpreter, Jessica Adams. “I’m more comfortable with my product. I know what I’m selling and what they’re looking for.”

Adams said the team was still learning about how to display, but were getting a lot of good leads that they hope will pan out.

Uncle Jammy’s spice rubs and sauces also have a good chance of making it over the border into Canada, says Etienne-Harrigan. “We’re getting people to know us and mark our territory. There are a lot of maybes and we’re answering all the questions.”

Other than the fact she over-prepared for the event with more product than she needed, Kelman says the show had no negatives. A lot of that had to do with love and advice she got from her Pittsburgh compatriots.

“I was the new, fresh person so  their information was invaluable about what I can do differently and move forward,” says Kelman.

One of her friends joked she had to go all the way to New York to talk to Giant Eagle, “but that’s how it works,” she says. “I’m just looking forward to learning so much.”

View the full article at post-gazette.com.