Missouri food manufacturers join to gain market exposure

Monday, November 22, 2004

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Gourmet jelly, organic soy nuts, honey and chili mix are among the gourmet items offered in a gift box from small Missouri specialty food producers who hope to woo customers from across the country.

Eleven companies are part of "Taste the Best of Missouri," a box shaped like the Show-Me state and colored black and gold -- a nod to University of Missouri. The companies hope the gift box will bring exposure and marketing opportunities for their products.

The products come from Kingdom City, St. Louis, Ballwin, Jefferson City, Columbia, Oregon, Kansas City, Urbana and Chesterfield.

The gift box idea began when Kansas City businessman John C. Jungk, owner of Old World Spices & Seasonings Inc., noticed Missouri was not represented at the national specialty food trade shows he attended.

At the same time, the Missouri Department of Agriculture's AgriMissouri Program was considering using a gift box to promote the state's small food producers.

Jungk met with AgriMissouri leaders about his concerns and was told about the gift box idea. The two sides worked out a deal, with the state offering a startup grant of $25,000.

Jungk volunteered to lead the program. Participating producers must be AgriMissouri members, and are encouraged to attend at least one trade show a year.

"At important times in my own business career, I have been helped by experienced people who were 'out in front of me' so to speak," said Jungk, whose family business has three generations of experience in the spice industry. "I wanted to give back to the community in the same way."

Jungk took applications from small producers and farmer co-ops from across the state. Products had to be nonperishable and to have a label with a scanner code and nutritional information. They also had to be priced right and pass a taste test.

After two years of planning, Jungk rolled out the gift box in August 2003 with products from 26 food producers. He offered five boxes ranging from $40 to $80, depending on the number of foods.

More than 3,000 were sent to homes and businesses in nearly every state, Europe and even Iraq, Jungk said.

But the program took more time and resources from his company than anticipated, so Jungk scaled back. This year's Taste the Best of Missouri involves 11 companies, offered in three boxes, priced at $35, $50 and $60.

There are stories behind every product in the box.

Paul Frye, of Urbana, planned to earn extra money as a computer science consultant after retiring in 1995 as a computer programer for United States Department of Agriculture.

Frye dabbled in the kitchen as a hobby. He tweaked a couple of old family recipes, and the results were a hit.

"Friends and relatives encouraged me a little," said the 68-year-old Frye. "I started playing with it and it took off."

Frye started Ozark Country Fixin's in 2001. He makes four "fixin's" to start dishes, including Down Home Chili, which is in the gift box. He also makes dip and batter mixes, and seasonings for everything from popcorn to stew.

Steve Picker, 37, of Jefferson City, believes consumers like foods made from recipes that have been preserved through the generations -- like one from his 89-year-old grandmother, Dorothy Holterman.

Holterman wanted to duplicate a family recipe for salad dressing, but her mother never used measuring cups and spoons.

"She spent 23 years trying to get the recipe right," Picker said. "She finally came up with the perfect amount of each ingredient in 1957."

Holterman was celebrating her 84th birthday in August 1999 when a relative suggested marketing the dressing. Grandma's Cool & Zesty salad dressing was ready for store shelves on Jan. 9, 2000. A sugar-free version is in Taste the Best of Missouri.

Mighty Mo Munchies Original Soy Nuts began as a college marketing assignment to create a new food product for Heidi Hall. She turned to her family, which grew soybeans on their farm in Oregon, Mo.

Heidi created a high protein, low fat soybean snack. Her professor loved it so much, he encouraged the Halls to market it. The family began selling organic soybean snacks under the Mighty Mo Munchies label in 1996.

The timing couldn't have been better because the Halls were still struggling to recover from the 1986 farm crisis, said Andy Hall, Heidi's brother.

Andy Hall acknowledges that some people are reluctant to try the snack. Once they do, they generally will buy it, he said.

That is one of the reasons the Halls sought to have their Organic Soy Nuts in the gift box.

"It's like a sampling for us," Andy Hall said. "We get sales from people who try it, and we get exposure."

Most gift boxes are sold through Old World Spices, although some specialty and gift shops carry them.

Greg Nutting, general manager of Maschino's Home Express in Springfield, said demand has grown this year through increased publicity. He recently ordered 36 more boxes, and all but six were pre-sold.

"We're seeing this huge pride come forward for Missouri products," Nutting said.

On the Net

Taste the Best of Missouri: www.tastethebestofmissouri.com

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