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VegasFoodExpo1

Making its debut in March, Vegas Food Expo is a one-of-a-kind trade show

that will feature more than a hundred up-and-coming brands.

By Janice Hoppe-Spiers

The larger the trade show, the more expensive it becomes to exhibit and more often than not turns into a social event rather than one of discovery. Brett Ottolenghi, proprietor of Artisanal Foods, created Vegas Food Expo to change all that by catering to small, innovative companies. 

“The dream has always been to create the Vegas Food Expo,” Ottolenghi says. “Las Vegas is the convention town of the U.S. Forty-two million people come here each year and a large percentage are here for conventions. It seemed logical we should have a food expo. I waited for 10 years to see if anyone would would create one, and when no one did, I figured we should step up.” 

Following a Dream

Attending trade shows has been part of Ottolenghi’s life since he was eight years old. His passion ran so deep that he remembers dodging event officials at a young age to avoid being escorted out until he could pass for 18 years old, which is the show’s age for admittance. 

“For about 10 years, or until I was 15 or 16 and could pass for 18, I was getting kicked out of New York’s Fancy Food Show when people saw me,” he remembers. “But I looked forward to it – it was my favorite three days of the year. I looked forward to it more than I did Christmas.” 

At 13 years old, Ottolenghi got into the truffle business with his father and more than a decade later still operates Artisanal Foods out of Las Vegas. Today, the company supplies top chefs in Las Vegas with foie gras, truffles, caviar, saffron, vinegars, cinnamon, oils, salts and ham.

Ottolenghi officially entered the business during his teenage years and because of that, trade shows took on new relevance. “Attending annual trade shows in different cities becomes like visiting famiy,” he explains. “It’s a lot of fun and there are always parties. But if you are throwing a show at the Javits Center [in New York], a 10-by-10 booth will cost an exhibitor $5,000. That’s prohibitively expensive to the vast majority of small food companies.” 

Making it Happen

Vegas Food Expo will debut in March, showcasing more than a hundred up-and-coming brands. Ottolenghi began looking for small, innovative companies in January 2015 to exhibit at the show. “We started by finding companies we thought really had an original, interesting product that was well executed and poised to be discovered,” he explains. 

VegasFoodExpo2“These companies have everything in line and just need to reach the marketplace,” Ottolenghi continues. “These make up most of our exhibitors. It will be a diverse group with about 10 companies in each of 10 categories.”

The inaugural Vegas Food Expo will offer a well-curated collection of young food producers. To accommodate them, the shows exhibitor packages are all-inclusive, costing roughly one-quarter of the larger mainstream shows. 

The first day of Vegas Food Expo is only open to buyers, chefs and the media. More than half of the buyers in attendance will include purchasing agents and chefs from the Vegas strip. “It will be a great opportunity for companies who want to enter the Vegas market,” Ottolenghi notes. “We have individually contacted several hundred food chains, small gourmet shops and restaurant groups, as well as promoted on social media and email blasts. That’s how we are getting national buyers to come.” 

The second day will be open to everyone, including foodies. “That’s something unique because most shows want to pretend to be industry only, but it becomes that anyone can get in,” Ottolenghi notes. “I think it’s an interesting part of the food system that food enthusiasts would be able to see.” 

A speaker’s series will round out the show. Topics on day one will appeal to buyers, exhibitors and chefs while the second day’s topics will be more broadly appealing to food enthusiasts. For example, Katrina Markoff, founder of Vosges Haut-Chocolat in Chicago, will speak about how she built her dream into a multimillion dollar chocolate company and aims to inspire girl food entrepreneurs.  

Additional speakers include: 

  • Paul Saginaw, co-owner of Zingerman’s
  • Lou Abin, co-owner and managing partner of TAO Group
  • Chip Heath, author of Made to Stick: Why some Ideas Survive and Others Die;
  • Naz Riahi, founder and CEO of Bitten;
  • Abel Charrow, business development for Soylent; and
  • Scott Norton, co-founder of Sir Kensington’s.

Space for a Cause

In addition to the exposure small producers will receive, Vegas Food Expo opened its doors to a few nonprofits that will share their mission at the event. Three Square, southern Nevada’s only food bank, will be present to share their mission of providing wholesome food to hungry people. 

Last year, Three Square distributed close to 40 million pounds of food and grocery product – more than 33 million meals – to more than 600 program partners, including nonprofit and faith-based organizations, schools and feeding sites. “It’s a phenomenal success,” Ottolenghi says. “They will have a space [at Vegas Food Expo] where people can package a bag of food for students in need. If there is a student in a public school who can’t afford meals over the weekend, a teacher will slip a bag of food into their backpack on Friday while the class is at recess. It’s an amazing service.”

Lionfish University is made up of a group of divers dedicated to the preservation of the ocean’s reefs and native fish populations, which are threatened by the Lionfish invasion in the Caribbean. The group will have a booth at Vegas Food Expo to educate attendees on the invasive species and the popularization of consuming Lionfish. 

Shark finning is another issue Ottolenghi has been passionate about for years and continues to support a federal ban. Shark Stewards will have an information booth present during the Vegas Food Expo. “Vegas is one of the worst offenders of consuming shark fin,” he says. “Every year, 90 million sharks are taken from the oceans and primarily used for their fins because the meat is no good and filled with mercury.”

The practice has become more prevalent over the past 20 to 30 years, Ottolenghi says. “There is a lot of wealth in China righty now that there are hundreds of millions of people who can afford shark fin soup,” he explains. “In Chinese cultures, shark fin soup is served at special occasions such as weddings or as a luxury item. We need to stop it. 

“I’ve tried to push for a ban here in Vegas, but it’s off limits because it’s so important to the gamblers and they are so important to our economy,” Ottolenghi continues. “Even though we all agree it should be banned, I can’t convince the commissioners to take the leadership role and ban it.” 

Interested in attending or exhibiting?

Vegas Food Expo will be held March 30-31 at the Gold Coast Casino & Hotel in Las Vegas. General admission is $50, complimentary to buyers and tickets can be purchased here

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