CPG Playbook   //   March 20, 2024

At Expo West 2024, global flavors and portable snacks stand out as trends

At this year’s Natural Products Expo West conference, attendees loaded up their tote bags with samples to stay up-to-date on all the latest trends in natural grocery (and, hopefully, keep their snack drawer filled for months).

This year’s conference, held at the Anaheim Convention Center, attracted 67,000 registered attendees and 3,300 companies that exhibited their latest products. With Expo East now canceled, the three-day-long California event had record attendance and a sold-out exhibit hall — officially marking a return to pre-pandemic activity.

For startup food brands, the Natural Products Expo West has become known as an annual hub to meet retail buyers, organize sampling events and meet with other brands. A number of brand founders spoke to Modern Retail about investing in attending and exhibiting at Expo West, which paid off in the form of leads to retail partnerships and future investments.

Seeking out buyers and potential investors 

Like the last few years, better-for-you and ethnic-inspired food and beverages were a big theme at Expo West 2024.

CPG investor Genevieve Gilbreath, founding partner at Springdale Ventures, said some of the standout products were “handheld hot bites with products with global flair” that were snackable and accessible, including Laoban Dumplings and empanadas by MasPandas.

“I’m interested in seeing some sleepy categories being brought in the modern era,” she said, having previously backed companies like Goodles and Acid League. Walking the Expo floors led her to Oddball Jelly Snacks, a soon-to-launch gelatin brand inspired by Asian jelly cups — which she hopes Springdale will end up investing in. She met the founder at the Backpack brands section, the part of the event that’s designed for emerging brands that are still too small to pay for a full booth installation. “I thought that was an interesting format, with a new take on Jell-O that’s low in sugar and high fiber,” she said.

“An interesting thing this year was that there was not one single trend across the board,” Gilbreath said. “Like the last few years, we’ve had coconut everything, or last year was ‘the year of the mushroom.’” However, major trends from the past few years continued to dominate. For instance, “plant-based products continue to thrive, but with less heavy focus on ‘meat substitutes,’” she said. Instead, many products featured at the natural foods conference were “plant powered,” and included clean and functional ingredients, such as adaptogens. 

Products inspired by global flavors attracted the attention of buyers and investors at 2024’s extravaganza. Better Sour, a gummy candy brand inspired by Middle Eastern and Asian Pacific flavors, was one such company. When the brand debuted last year at Expo West, it already had some buzz thanks to a recent Erewhon partnership. But this year, Better Sour returned to Expo West to show how much it had grown over the past year.“This year, we’re walking in with over 1,500 doors and a great data story,” Better Sour co-founder Bella Hughes said.

Hughes said a major perk of attending this year was meeting with “enthusiastic VCs and strategic investors,” who reached out or asked a mutual contact for an introduction. “This was our fifth trade show and second Expo West since launching last year and, wow, the VCs were out in full force,” Hughes said. “We were surprised by their quick follow-up, many emailing while still at the show to ensure we set up time to speak post-Expo.” 

Deal closing was also a big goal for Tiffany Yang, co-founder and CMO of mochi ice cream brand Sweety. “We were able to land a deal during buyer hour, closing a connection that we had made a year ago and it resulted in a deal with the buyer saying yes on the spot,” Yang said.

Over the past year, Sweety had worked on developing newer, brighter packaging that it got to debut at Expo West. In turn, Yang said much of the renewed interest came from Sweety’s rebranding efforts, as well as its innovative booth format. Sweety had a claw machine for attendees to try to win branded merch while they tasted the mochi. “We learned that having a fun and engaging booth really brought excitement out of people,” Yang said.

“Expo West can be such an expensive investment for small brands, but it can be done in a way that is both impactful and still stays within our budget,” she added.

In turn, Expo West continues to attract even established brands, who look for scrappy ways to keep their products top of mind for buyers — and to see what their competition is up to. One company that headed to Expo West to scour trends was the Asian food brand Nona Lim, which was founded in 2014 and specializes in bone broths and freeze dried noodles.The brand didn’t officially exhibit at Expo but opted for a “special event” to highlight the company’s latest news and launches. 

“We wanted to see and taste what’s new and trending in natural retail grocery, especially in the ethnic and international space,” said founder and CEO Nona Lim, noting the growing Asian foods segment. “There’s a lot out there, particularly in the sauce category, and we wanted to understand how and where to set up our two new innovative products for success,” Lim said, pointing to the company’s new ready-to-heat entrees and instant noodle bowls. 

The brand is currently sold at chains like Target, Khim’s Millenium Market, Wegmans and Whole Foods. Lim said that Nona Lim also wanted to go to Expo West to spread the word about its exit news; the brand was acquired by Hong Kong-based food group DayDayCook (DDC) last August for an undisclosed sum.

As part of the promotion, Nona Lim collaborated on a tasting event with ready-to-eat Thai food Yai’s Thai, which DDC also acquired in December 2023.Along with connecting with existing retailers, marketing partners and broker teams, Lim said the brand also met with some prospective new retail partners for future expansion.

A chance to break into new markets

This year’s conference also included many international brands hoping to break into U.S. retail. 

Kathryn Bricken, founder of the U.K.-based cookie dough snack brand Doughlicious, traveled from London for her first Expo West to help launch Doughlicious’ line of frozen cookie dough and gelato bites — which rolled out in select Whole Foods regions in December. 

Having launched in the U.S. market just in December 2023, Bricken said “this was a pivotal moment” for the brand’s American introduction as it prepares a nationwide Whole Foods Market launch this April.

Beyond that, she said the industry event helped her team connect with retailers, distributors and media. “This was particularly beneficial given our strong roots in the U.K. but brand new to the U.S. market,” she said.

The results so far were promising. The company’s product sampling ended up generating interest from both natural and conventional grocery chain buyers. “Participating in a prestigious event like Expo West lends credibility to our brand,” Bricken said. “It shows that we are serious about our business, committed to quality, and ready to compete in a big way.”