Expo to showcase all things 'natural'

After three years mixing, bottling and boxing natural personal care products to be sold in local shops at their home in Annapolis, Robert and Zoe Benzinger are poised for bigger things.

For the first time their company, eco-armour, will be among the exhibitors starting Wednesday at Natural Products Expo East 2014 in Baltimore, billed as the largest trade show on the East Coast devoted to goods made from ingredients found in nature treated with relatively little processing. The industry says sales of natural food for people and pets, diet supplements, and cosmetics and grooming products are growing about 8 percent a year.


"It's time to take it to the next level, to go nationwide," said Robert Benzinger, whose company makes shaving cream, body spray, skin lotion, insect repellent and lip balm. "So this is our big launch."

Benzinger and his wife will be in the NEXT section of the show, where about 400 first-time exhibitors will offer new products, including a brand of protein bar made from cricket flour — yes, that's ground crickets. The NEXT area occupies about a third of the show, which is expected to include 1,250 exhibitors and draw some 23,000 people to the Baltimore Convention Center from Wednesday through Saturday, making it one of the city's largest conventions.


The expo is open only to people in the business, not the general public.

The exhibitors include 33 Maryland companies, 14 of which are making their expo debut, according to New Hope Natural Media, a Boulder, Colo., company that produces the show.

It's a chance for buyers to see what's on offer, for people in the business to cultivate connections, for new companies to get the word out on their wares. It's also a place to track food fads.

Carlotta Mast, a New Hope senior director, said she expects to see more high-protein foods, including many made from plant sources. There's Banza, the first pasta made from chickpeas. There's Exo Bar, a new version of a product that debuted last year: a protein snack containing cricket flour.

Mast expects to see more versions of an old product: water. Coconut waters have been on the market for years, joined by almond, cashew and watermelon waters. More recent is a water drawn by tapping maple trees, which also is used to make maple syrup.

The broader trend is toward food and other products called "natural," with sales projected to grow from $137 billion in 2012 to $226 billion by 2018, Mast said. That would be about twice the recent sales growth rate of groceries alone, according to figures compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The $137 billion was about 20 percent of the nearly $672 billion Americans spent on groceries in 2012. That grocery figure, however, does not include cosmetics, pet food and other items counted in the "natural" products category.

The government sets official standards for products labeled "organic," and for the "natural" label for meat and poultry. Otherwise, the term is loosely defined, as much for what is not in the product as for what it contains.

Hope Natural Media publishes a list of ingredients on its website that disqualify products from appearing at the expo. These include artificial sweeteners, preservatives, coloring, thickeners, emulsifiers and dough conditioners.

"I think the future of the food industry is the natural food industry," said Errol Schweizer, executive global grocery coordinator for Whole Foods Markets.

"The first thing we do is check out the new products division," said Schweizer, who has attended the expo for years with a contingent of Whole Foods buyers. "That's what makes it exciting."

At the expo a few years ago, he met a man who ran a company called Harmless Harvest, then breaking into the coconut water market.


"He had this amazing story about trying to source organic coconuts," said Schweizer, who signed the company up. The brand is now the best-selling of about a dozen coconut waters Whole Foods carries, Schweizer said.

This is the sort of break many exhibitors dream about.

It's happened more than once for a local company, B'More Organic, founded by Jennifer and Andrew Buerger of Baltimore in 2010. Andrew Buerger said it now sells its drinkable yogurt at Wegmans and the online grocer Fresh Direct, thanks to connections made at the expo in recent years.

"We went from selling out of the back of our car" to small stores to Wegmans, Buerger said.

Michele's Granola already is sold locally at Wegmans, as well as Whole Foods and Fresh Market and many smaller stores, but founder and owner Michele Tsucalas wants to go further. She paid about $3,000 for a spot at the expo as "an investment in our future growth," hoping to find new customers.

Tsucalas founded the company in 2006 at her home in Takoma Park, and has since moved to progressively larger spaces in South Baltimore and Timonium. The business will stay in Timonium but soon expand more than three times to 10,000 square feet.

"We're expanding, moving to a larger production facility this winter," said Tsucalas. "We figured the time was right to expand our distribution."

Robert and Zoe Benzinger have much the same hope. Robert said they've been talking with a national distributor and with a company that can take over the work of bottling, labeling and storing their products. As it is, they run the business — now with $100,000 in sales a year — in the kitchen and dining room, storing boxed merchandise in the basement of their home in the Bay Ridge area of Annapolis.

It's been working since they started in 2011, but Robert suggested it's wearing thin.

"It will not be a sad day in my wife's life when we move to another location," he said.

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