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Industry // March 29th, 2024

Immerse Yourself in the Best of the West: Our Expo Takes

Written by Jessica Lyness and Natalie Stronczek MS, RD

Expo West 2024 was truly a feast for the senses! Food and beverage innovators brought their A-game, showcasing hot new products, buzzy ingredients and dream-team collaborations. The expo floor sizzled with marketing creativity and booth experiences that left buyers hungry for more.

While not every brand can offer hot soup dumplings from a Marvel superhero, many grabbed attention with irresistible samples (ahem, Pasta Rummo scraped from a parmesan wheel); engaging play, such as slot machines, claw machines, and basketball hoops, and good ‘ol fashioned aesthetics and branding – check out Creative Director Evan Parcher’s insightful packaging design roundup. But this year’s award for best activation goes to Clean Cult, a plastic-free cleaning brand that offered aura readings and consultations. We’ll be overthinking that experience for months to come.

So, all aboard Grillo’s mechanical pickle as we share our favorite observations from this year.

Only have time for quick takeaways? Founder Jen Maxwell-Muir has you covered on LinkedIn.

If It’s Not Sparkling, We Don’t Want It

It’s tough to be a non-sparkling beverage these days. On the outside Poppi, Ollipop, and Sprindrift may appear to be running the show. But one look within (within being Expo West) and it’s clear these brands have their work cut out for them if they want to maintain their hold on the market share.

Sparkling beverage brands were all over Expo, each touting unique selling points, from functionality to adaptogenic properties, nootropic to prebiotics, and clean energy to hydration. The one thing these brands all have in common? They’re all sparkling. What were our favorites, you ask? Hoptonic for finally bringing a sparking Earl Grey tea to the market, Corpse Reviver for branding so sharp it just might wake the dead, and Waju for redefining the art of “upcycling”.

Now let’s answer the one question we hear asked over and over again: is it healthy? And the answer is: we can’t really say. There’s no concrete evidence to claim these sodas as health elixirs, especially when compared to the well-studied benefits of a nutrient-rich diet. However, the term “healthy” is a nuanced concept, that includes not just physical, but also mental well-being. So, does sipping a sparkly soda bring you joy? Well, there you have it.

Still, these brands aren’t just competing amongst themselves, they’re also up against the giants of the soda industry (you know who you are). With traditional soda sales on the decline, consumers are clamoring for healthier options with less sugar. So, the battle for the top sparkling bev isn’t just about who’s best at Expo, but who’s got what it takes to continue to give the people what they want.

The Sun Rises and Sets with Citrus

If there was one flavor that stood out amongst the rest, it was citrus. Brands were packing a punch, proving that when life gives you lemons—or yuzu—innovation follows suit.

Citrus’ presence at Expo first piqued our interest when we discovered the new-to-us Yuzu sparkling juice and water from Kimino. Crafted with hand-picked seasonal fruits and natural sourced water from the Hyogo mountains, this brand follows the “Kanso” philosophy to use only what is necessary.

We chalked it up to a citrus coincidence when we then stumbled across Alec’s Ice Cream and their new Meyer Lemon Cookie that hit us right in the regenerative agriculture feels. But what began as a citrus coincidence emerged as a full-blown citrus trend after we learned that brekki wants you to start your mornings off right with their new lemon ready-to-eat oats and Chocxo will help round out your day with a sweet little treat of Dark Chocolate Lemon Crème Cups.

And if you decide you might as well add citrus to every meal, enjoy this Yuzu Ramen from Japanese noodle company, Myojo, that left our team eagerly awaiting its official debut.

Getting Saucy

If your favorite condiment is still ketchup, open your eyes! We are living in a new world – one filled with whimsy, wonder, and flavorful dips and sauces. Expo showed us that if you can dream it, you can dip it. Whether it’s an up-and-coming, family-founded tomato lonsa suitable for virtually any dish – Aaji’s, can you tell we’re a bit obsessed? – or a beloved tofu brand debuting a variety of spicy soybean dips (Hi Hodo!), it’s time to stock your fridge.

Also hot on our list are Bachan’s Japanese Barbecue Saucecocojune’s new dairy-free LabnehPrimal Kitchen’s restaurant-inspired dipping sauces, and on the sweeter side, Chosen Food’s Chocolate Hazelnut Spread that tastes just like you-know-what but made from avocado oil and 40% less sugar.

If it feels like there are more condiments out there than ever, there are. The global sauces, dressings, and condiments is on a notable rise with shifting consumer preferences towards nutritional food and the increasing popularity of global flavors to thank. But this doesn’t just apply to CPG brands. Restaurants are joining in on inventive new flavors including Taco Bell, which is partnering with Oregon-favorite, Secret Aardvark Hot Sauce to supply the sauce for their limited-time-only Secret Aardvark Nacho Fries.

Gotta Keep ‘Em Collaborated

Is Expo West getting cozier? We see the camaraderie between brands on the rise. Whether it’s a simple cross-booth activation like adding Bloom to your Vita Coco for a boost of hydration or celebrating the magical partnership of Chobani and Columbe, a result, in part, of the two companies cohosting a booth last year at Expo West. Besides, where else can you find dozens of people sipping on The Dry Guys Olive Oil Martinis, Aura Bora’s first non-alcoholic sparkling and collab with Graza EVOO, while munching on Graza’s already sold-out potato chips topped with smoked trout from fishwife, and a little Zab’s? It’s the Aura Bora collab happy hour party, of course!

Founders at the Fore

We noticed how present the “founder story” was at the show in helping newer brands stand out (Food Dive: Elizabeth Flood). Take Issei Mochi Gummies. Not only does the Japanese American female founder Mika Shino serve up delicious vegan mochi gummies, but she also displays her founder story at the booth. “Issei” means first-generation Japanese immigrant, and her products are a love letter to “all immigrants who carry their heritage, culture and memories to their new home in the U.S.” Also bringing culture forward through their food is Aaji, a spicy-sweet tomato condiment brand. Aaji means grandmother in India, and it’s that lifetime of love and flavor from their matriarch’s recipes the founder’s story celebrates. We even spoke to founders just attending the show, such as Nemi Snacks hoping to elevate Mexican culture through snacking, and Señor Mango, honoring her father’s prized Kent Mangos crops in Mexico with delicious, dried mango snacks.

Still, one founder story created the mold, that of Bob’s Red Mill founder Bob Moore, who passed away last month, at 94. Thousands of people stopped by to share their respect for Mr. Moore’s whole grains legacy and admiration for his generosity in leaving company ownership to its 700 employees. Many others shared photos and stories of him on a public memorial wall. One note addressed to “Bob, our Expo Angel,” with a picture attached shared, “From my very first year at Expo – I took my first picture with you. For 12 years after, every year, I got a picture with you at Expo. It was always my first stop. You epitomize the natural space with quality, honesty, generosity and integrity. We love you. – WJ” A beautiful tribute to an amazing founder and leader.

Merch Madness

You’ve never needed to bring any bags to Expo West, they’ll give you one, two, a dozen bags of various shapes, sizes and styles. Bright red ones with flowers, soft pink ones in weird shapes, and giant bags in gold lame. But if you want a bag that goes viral at Expo, then look no further than Proper Wild, one of the most popular bags at the show. Shout-out to Poppi’s vinyl bag (which you can buy) and an iconic non-bag swag item: Corpse Reviver’s kooz necklace. It’s hot merch. It’s a show takeaway. It’s your new favorite brand?