B2B meetings give Alaska producers international exposure
Canadian food brokers and marketers recently gave a handful of Alaska startups a taste of what it would take to go international with their products in a first of its kind trade mission.
Lyndsey Smith, a marketing coordinator with the state Division of Agriculture who helped organize the business-to-business meetings, said the goal of state officials is simply to help retail-ready Alaska food products gain exposure in a new market.
“We are helping build relationships for local Alaska and Made in Alaska businesses to be able to strengthen a secondary market,” Smith said.
The initial round of speed-dating style introductions took place the mornings of June 13-14 at the Grand View Inn in Wasilla. Brokers and marketers from across Canada discussed products, market opportunities and challenges with representatives from five Alaska brands in a series of half-hour, one-on-one meetings.
The seven-member Canadian contingent then spent the afternoons touring retailers and farms in Anchorage and the Mat-Su area.
Pola Schacter Ley of Vancouver said she came to the meetings with the hope of finding natural food products made from as many local ingredients as possible — and she found what she was looking for.
“We’re really focused on plant-based; we’re really focused on vegan, clean ingredients and simple and traditional,” said Schacter Ley.
She is not opposed to working with meat or protein-based products; however, they require adhering to a much more complex set of regulations when being sent across the border, she noted.
A chef by trade, Schacter Ley said she enjoys working with food producers to find ways to tweak or add value to their products or develop new recipes with them.
“I’m open to innovative ideas, always,” she said.
Schacter Ley and her husband work with a variety of retailers from large “banner” stores to independent grocers, convenience chains and food service providers.
The size of the producer company doesn’t matter as much as its backing, she said. Companies need to be on a positive trajectory and have substantial support to enter a new market.
“If the company is small and they can’t supply, let’s say a large banner store, that doesn’t mean I’m not going to work with them. We circle around them with independents,” Schacter Ley said, adding that niche products are often a better in smaller retailers willing to try new products.
Selling into large chains also comes with listing fees and other costs smaller stores don’t require, she noted.
The meetings were set up through Alaska’s membership in the Western United States Agriculture Trade Association, which helped link the Canadian buyers and marketers with the nine Alaska companies looking to grow.
“We are excited to offer these meetings to encourage innovative strategies to expand opportunities for Alaska’s agricultural businesses,” Agriculture Division Director David Schade said. “Leveraging our partnership with WUSATA to help agribusinesses find new markets, including international markets, is one of the many important services we provide to private-sector businesses.”
Similar meetings are in the works for August to highlight the state’s booming peony and cut-flower industry.
Schacter Ley recommended that the Alaska startups trying to enter a new market such as Canada find additional ways to get their products in front of more sellers, such as committing to trade shows and using social media campaigns.
“Nowadays you can’t just work with a store. It takes a lot more,” she said.
The trade mission didn’t come with a big set of expectations, either. Schacter Ley said she was happy providing advice and perspective from another market for the Alaska companies and making a single connection during the meetings would make the whole trip a success.
She and other brokers from New Brunswick and Alberta said they believe Alaska-sourced products have a similar draw in Canada as they do elsewhere, despite the fact that the country and state share many features.
“Vancouver loves Alaska,” Schacter Ley said.
“It’s got that raw, rugged beauty and I think B.C. has a bit of that same vibe.”
Angele Miller, with Edmonton, Alberta-based Abundant By Design Inc., said she believes many Canadian consumers are comfortable with the slightly higher price point that often comes with Alaska-sourced foods because Alaska is seen as “mysterious” and “pure and clean.”
“I think people will pay more for Alaska products than if it came from (the Lower 48),” Miller said.
Both Miller and Schacter Ley were impressed by Heather’s Choice, an Anchorage-based dehydrated food startup — think backpacking meals with Alaska ingredients.
Sales representative Zach Menzel said all of the eight Heather’s Choice breakfast and general meal options are hypoallergenic; they’re free of gluten, dairy, soy and corn.
The meals are based on Prince William Sound sockeye, grass-fed bison from Delta Junction and other Alaska-grown foods.
The dehydrated meals have a shorter shelf life than traditional freeze-dried camp foods, “but higher quality ingredients — things a five-year-old could pronounce,” Menzel described. “There’s no preservatives, no artificial ingredients, no flavoring agents, nothing like that. Everything is just whole food dehydrated in our kitchen in Anchorage.”
Heather’s Choice products are in about 20 Western states and several Alaska outdoor retailers, despite the company being just five years old, according to Menzel.
“We’re just trying to aggressively grow this thing,” he said.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].