Specialty Food group eyes Charleston

Since smoking their first experimental batch of sea salt at a hog roast last year, Rustin and Teresa Gooden have placed Bulls Bay Saltworks salt in 40 retail shops. But the couple isn't sure how many more stores it should add to the tally before entrusting logistics to a distributor.

"We could grow larger, but how do we focus it?"Teresa Gooden said, outlining the sales situation for another dozen artisan producers gathered last week at Caviar & Bananas for a networking group sponsored by the Specialty Food Association.

"See, we're sharing!" exclaimed Chris Nemchek, the association's member relations officer. "It's a share group!"

Although the meeting was promoted as a share group, association officials hint the event could mark the start of a more formal relationship between the Lowcountry and the national organization, best known for annually staging Fancy Food Shows in New York City and San Francisco. Along with Minneapolis, Charleston is being considered as a Local/Regional Initiative site, meaning training and mentoring programs would be regularly offered here.

"We're testing the waters," spokeswoman Louise Kramer says. "It's very, very preliminary, but there's definitely a need for this kind of information and resource. The specialty food market is at an all-time high."

According to research conducted by the association, three out of four U.S. consumers buy specialty foods, with chocolate, olive oil, cheese and coffee among the most popular purchases.

The Charleston meeting drew producers of cocktail sauce, marshmallows, cookies and biscotti designed to pair with wine. Louis and Marlene Osteen came to discuss their new line of condiments, including pimento cheese. "Distribution is a critical point for us," Marlene Osteen sighed.

Other concerns raised at the meeting included the high cost of exhibiting at the Fancy Food Show, extending the shelf life of packaged products, time management and branding.

"There are people who make wonderful jams and salsas, but taking it to the next level beyond the farmers market is challenging," Kramer says.

The Local/Regional Initiative program was launched in the Hudson Valley, and has since been extended to Portland and the Bay area. The program doesn't entail a building or staff, but it ensures the scheduling of full-day workshops covering topics such as how to get a product into Whole Foods.

"We look for where we have a concentration of members and a lot of activity," Kramer says of the selection process. "We know there are a lot of new companies here."

If the association decides to set up a site in Charleston, it could be established as early as next year, she adds.