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A tasty event links vendors and buyers
The Virginia Food & Beverage Expo drew more vendors and buyers this year, a sign that the economy is improving

 One of the exhibitors at the Virginia Food & Beverage Expo was Spotsylvania County's Spice Rack Chocolates.
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Date published: 3/31/2012

BY CATHY JETT

Tom Weaver has seen a shift in the types of buyers who attend the biennial Virginia Food & Beverage Expo in Richmond.

When the Madison County farmer first started showing his Papa Weaver's pork products there 16 years ago, they were mainly from such corporations as Gwaltney, Smithfield and Sysco.

The latest show, held Wednesday at the Greater Richmond Convention Center, still drew some of what Weaver refers to as "the big boys." But there also were a number representing smaller businesses--gourmet shops, restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts and the like, he said.

They were looking for locally made products featuring locally grown ingredients. And, unlike the last show in 2010, they were buying.

"It feels like the economy is coming around," said Weaver, whose booth attracted buyers with the scent of sizzling sage- and garlic-flavored sausage links. "I made three really good contacts this morning, and I'll probably make three or more this afternoon. The sous chefs come in the morning, and the real decision-makers come in the afternoon."

Weaver was one of 130 exhibitors at the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services-sponsored event, which connects Virginia specialty food and beverage producers and buyers. That's up from about 110 vendors in 2010, said Charles Green, VDAC's marketing director.

The expo also attracted more buyers for their dizzying array of gourmet sauces, seasonings and other items. About 1,200 preregistered, 100 more waited until Tuesday to sign up by email and some walked in at the last minute, he said.

"We're definitely seeing positive signs for our exhibitors and for people looking for locally made Virginia products," said Green. "It's a positive overall economic trend. There's an increase in attendance, an increase in vendors and an increase in people coming in with new products."

Mary Schellhammer, whose Spotsylvania County-based Spice Rack Chocolates won the expo's Best New Product award in 2008 and 2010, was there to hand out samples of her new "Just Right" chocolate, which contains a homemade marshmallow covered with caramel, and to show off her uniquely flavored gourmet chocolates.

"There's a different level of buyers this year," she said. "Before, it was like someone would just get a badge and come to eat. This year, the serious buyers are friending you on Facebook before they leave [your booth]."


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