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Food experts discuss what the consumer wants

Food experts discuss what the consumer wants

Consumers want their food choices to be fresh, local, “clean,” healthy, decadent, plant-based, full of taste, packaged in a recycled container, and made by a company that has a social conscience and doesn’t harm the environment.

Those were some of the conclusions of a panel on meeting consumer demands with food innovation at the Grow-NY conference this week at the Floreano Riverside Convention Center.

Representatives of Ag Voice from Georgia, standing, make a pitch for their company to seated judges at the Grow-NY competition.
Representatives of Ag Voice from Georgia, standing, make a pitch for their company to seated judges at the Grow-NY competition.

Nearly 1,000 people, from Georgia to Alberta, Canada, were attending the conference to learn or boast about food and agriculture opportunities in this part of New York and to witness a $3 million competition for food and agriculture startups.

Seventeen startup companies, including two from Ontario County, were vying for prizes ranging from $250,000 to $1 million in the competition due to conclude Thursday. Grow-NY is an economic development initiative trying to lure businesses to or expand businesses in the Finger Lakes region, part of the Southern Tier, and Central New York. The Grow-NY area covers 22 counties, from Broome County in the southeast to Orleans County in the northwest.

Cornell University’s Center for Regional Economic Advancement is managing the competition and event, which is funded by Empire State Development.

The local competitors were The Perfect Granola, of Victor, and RealEats America, of Geneva. Both companies source ingredients locally, eschew additives and exercise their social consciousness by donating their products, whether they’re granola bars or ready-to-reheat meals.

Other competitors included:

  • Dropcopter, a Syracuse company that uses drones to pollinate tree crops;
  • Combplex, an Ithaca company that using small lasers to kill pests that are killing honey bees;
  • AgVoice, a Norcross, Ga., company that uses voice-activated mobile devices to record and compile agricultural data; and
  • Livestock Water Recycling, from Alberta, a company that recycles the waste stream of cows into fertilizer and reusable water.

The competition was due to conclude with the announcement of the winners Thursday evening.

Each company had 20 minutes to make its presentation, with 10 minutes for the pitch and another 10 minutes to field questions from a panel of judges.

Evident in many of the pitches and the symposium discussions were the resources that exist locally for food and agriculture entrepreneurs. Many noted the role that Cornell University, and particularly its research and development arm in Geneva for agriculture and food production, Cornell AgriTech, had played in helping their companies hone their ideas. Similarly, several companies noted that they’re already demonstrating their technologies or products by working with Wegmans Food Markets Inc., such as at its organic farm in Canandaigua.

More established food and agriculture companies also offered their takes on doing business, including Rochester’s LiDestri Food and Drink, Rich Products in Buffalo and Chobani, in Chenango County. In the panel on consumer preferences, they both said they’re always watching for changes in consumer preferences, including environmental concerns.

Niel Sandfort, vice president of new product development at Chobani, said when a company’s carbon footprint is calculated, the nutrients they’re transporting should be part of the equation. He noted that yogurt is one of the most nutrient dense foods made, and trucks carrying that food shouldn’t really be compared to, say, trucks carrying loads of soda pop, which is essentially water and sugar.

Nevertheless, he said, “We’re constantly ‘light-weighting.’ Last year we took out 1 million pounds of resin. How do we (keep making) a better container?”

As for additives, Sandfort said the company is extremely careful about what it introduces to yogurt, joking that “Yogurt is basically a petri dish waiting to be contaminated.”

Jamie McKeon, senior vice president of demand creation at Rich Products, said consumers say they want clean, additive-free food but they’re also unwilling to compromise on taste. Her company, which makes what she described as a celebratory range of products — cakes, cookies, icings, pizzas — actually sees sales drop when it attempts to market products featuring healthy ingredients.

“Indulgence is important to consumers today. How can we make it healthier and ‘cleaner?’” she said.  McKeon said consumer preferences seem to indicate people want to eat healthier during their daily routines, but focus more on taste and experience for non-routine meals or celebrations.

“Consumers are in control and they want to have it all,” she said.

LiDestri is partnering with a controlled environment producer of greens because of consumer preference, said Phil Viruso, chief operating office at LiDestri. “Consumers want fresh, healthy options and they want smaller portions,” so the company is trying to accommodate those preferences.

RBJ’s coverage of the winners of the competition will run online.

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