Vermont Food Producers Find New Way to Reach Retail Accounts Amid Pandemic

A series of virtual tastings launched Thursday, bringing together specialty food producers and retailers looking to expand their offerings while traditional trade shows remain canceled

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A new series of virtual tasting events is connecting Vermont specialty food producers with retailers interested in carrying their products — something that has been challenging during the coronavirus pandemic.

The business development series, developed by the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association and the Vermont Specialty Food Association, is essentially a virtual trade show that uses the mail to enable buyers to sample wholesalers’ products.

“Being able to connect with people, especially right now in a wholesale market, it’s been difficult,” said Al Wood of Wood’s Vermont Syrup Company in Randolph, who participated in Thursday’s inaugural virtual tasting.

Wood, who produces a wide range of varieties of Vermont maple syrup, including a popular option that is aged in bourbon barrels, normally would set up booths at trade shows, where he would hope to land new accounts to carry his line. 

However, because of the need to slow the spread of COVID-19, the shows on Wood’s normal calendar were canceled.

“That has disappeared,” said Erin Sigrist, the president of the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association, of the traditional trade show. “We said, ‘We have a problem — let’s fix it.’”

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So the VRGA teamed with the Vermont Specialty Food Association to put on a series of virtual tastings that function a bit like speed dating for food producers.

The producers send samples to buyers ahead of time. They have a chance to try them out, then meet with the makers live online for a pitch, to ask questions and to hear the stories of the people behind the labels.

“If you can make that connection with the producer, then you pass it on to the customer, and then the customer becomes a customer for life,” said Mary Tuthill, the retail manager of Mad River Taste Place in Waitsfield, who participated in Thursday’s virtual tasting as a buyer.

Mark Bouchett, who co-owns the store Homeport on the Church Street Marketplace in Burlington, echoed Tuthill’s view about the value of hearing stories about producers. He added that he wants to carry more products that are made by Vermonters.

“I go to Atlanta every year, I go to Chicago every year,” Bouchett told NECN after Thursday’s virtual tasting, describing trips he typically makes to trade shows. “We might stumble across one Vermont producer there. But being able to see a bunch of Vermont producers in one spot was really great.”

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The partners in the virtual series have four more sessions planned and expect them to fill up quickly with producers and buyers. 

There are still some open slots, Sigrist said Thursday. To apply, as either a producer or buyer, visit this website.

Wood’s Vermont Syrup Company said it is grateful to feel like the operation is still progressing, despite all the disruptions from the coronavirus.

“It’s going to help move things forward,” Wood predicted.

Sigrist said she believes the concept could become a lasting tradition, even after things go back to normal.

“Hopefully, if we can continue to bring producers and retailers together here in Vermont, we can expand it to New England,” Sigrist said.

Call it “trade show version 2.0,” another example of pivoting in the pandemic.

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