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One of the exhibitors at the Virginia Food & Beverage Expo was Spotsylvania County's Spice Rack Chocolates.
A crew from Papa Weaver's in Madison County prepares garlic-infused sausage
Jamie Flythe, proprietor of Uncle June's Virginia-style BBQ Sauce, chats with attendees as others smell the sauce.
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]."
By early afternoon, first timer Jamie Flythe of Spotsylvania said he'd already had 10 people say they wanted to buy his Uncle June's Virginia-style BBQ Sauce.
"That's double my customer base right there," he said.
Flythe started working on the recipe for it after a friend asked him to bring two gallons of Allman's Bar-B-Q sauce to the annual barbecue Flythe catered in exchange for keeping his boat at the friend's house in Galesville, Md.
That inspired him to create his own sauce, which he's tinkered with over the years. The final product starts out sweet, then develops a mouth-tingling heat.
"It's not overly hot when it's on a sandwich," Flythe said.
He decided to sell it as a hobby after friends nagged him to get it bottled, and was hoping that a specialty shop or food service might spot him at the expo and decide to carry it. Currently, it's available at only a handful of places, including the Made in Virginia Store in downtown Fredericksburg.
John and Kathryne Mitchell, who own the Made in Virginia store, said they've attended the expo for 26 years, and it's where they find 90 percent of the gourmet foods they carry.
This time several new products caught their eye, including Joyce and Travis Miller's Wildwood's Hickory Syrup, which the Berryville couple make from the bark of shagbark hickory trees, and tender biscuits made with two types of Vermont cheddar by Jane's Sweet Potato Biscuits LLC in Franklin.
"Can't you just see a cheddar biscuit with thin slices of country ham for breakfast?" John Mitchell said. "We'd have a line at Fizzlebottom's [the store's new cafe] that would look like the line at Carl's."
Stanley Mays, president of Virginia Diner Shoppes, said this year's expo appeared to have a better mix of products and vendors than in the past 10 years he's attended to find gourmet items to stock the company's three stores. They include one in Spotsylvania Towne Centre and a fourth will open in May in Williamsburg.
"There are a lot of new products that I like," he said while standing next to Virginia Diner's booth. "Red Rocker Candy had a trail mix I liked, and Jerry's [Backyard Barbeque Sauces] had a new barbecue sauce I liked."
Red Rocker Candy is made by former Fredericksburg resident Sue Charney, who now runs the business from Troy, a small town east of Charlottesville.
She's been showing her line of handmade candies at the expo for eight years, and was there this year to display such creations as Rocking Chair Mix, a blend of cereals, nuts and pretzels coated with white chocolate.
Companies such as hers as well as retailers have been struggling the last few years, she said, but business is improving.
"I'm up 120 percent over last year," she said. "I looked yesterday, and I couldn't believe it. I believe the gloom is lifting."
Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407