Great Business Ideas: Publicize Your Food Business

Great Ideas for your Small Business: Publicize Your Food Business

The power of the press is greater than ever when it comes to driving sales of offbeat specialty foods. Positive publicity sends foodies to the phones to feed their passion for unique food and condiments. With Americans buying an estimated $400 million worth of specialty foods a year by mail, according to the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade in New York City, the field is a gold mine for smaller companies.

A short blurb by a noted food writer, critic, or author often means the difference between success and failure for a start- up. For example, a mention in Florence Fabricant’s New York Times “Food Notes” column launched Matt and Ted Lee’s boiled-peanuts-by-mail business. “The reason I went for the boiled peanuts was because it was a regional specialty,” said Fabricant. “Before the Lee Brothers offered it, boiled peanuts were not available outside a certain region in the South.” Fabricant said she receives about two dozen pitches a week from small, specialty food product makers hoping for her attention.

The Lee brothers say they owe their success to journalists like Fabricant. “Publicity is crucial,” said Ted Lee. “We’ve never paid a dime for advertising.” When Ted and Wendy Eidson, founders of Mo Hotta Mo Betta, started their San Luis Obispo, California–based spicy food catalog, they relied on the public library to find the addresses of 200 regional newspapers. They often attach samples of spicy wasabi chips to tempt the palates of the food editors. The Eidsons said 30 to 40 percent of the editors they send information to use it in some way.

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The free publicity and growing passion for super-hot foods has fueled sales. The company, with sales under $5 million, is growing at 200 percent a year, Ted Eidson said. “The catalog business has flattened out at this point,” said Eidson. “Now we’re diversifying. Last year we started making our own sauces and tamale kits.” Twenty years ago, an article in Delta Airline’s Sky magazine drew customers from all over the country to Nathalie Dupree’s tiny Georgia restaurant. Dupree, an Atlanta-based author and cooking expert, has produced more than 300 shows for PBS and The Food Network. “When an article is written about me, I may get calls for up to five years after- wards,” said Dupree, author of Nathalie Dupree Cooks Great Meals for Busy Days (Crown; 2001) and many other books.

Dupree, Fabricant, and other food writers and experts realize the impact their coverage can have on a small business. “I don’t mention anyone unless I think they can handle the business,” Dupree said.

Although success in the specialty food business is largely publicity driven, proper marketing etiquette can be tricky.

For instance, don’t call to follow up after you send a press release to a food editor. “Assume it got here—and don’t pester the editor,” said Patricia Mack, food editor for The Record in Hackensack, New Jersey. Mack said every week her staff receives hundreds of press releases and about half end up in the trash.

The National Association for the Specialty Food Trade (NASFT) is a membership organization for the industry. They publish a magazine and a mail-order directory and sponsor fancy food shows twice a year.

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