PARIS -- A number of U.S. food manufacturers and distributors came here last week for the biennial SIAL trade show hoping to establish a firmer base for exports to Western Europe.
With some international business already in hand either in the Pacific Rim or Latin America, or both, the suppliers and distributors said they are now targeting Western Europe as a potential growth area.
SIAL, the Salon International de L'Alimentation, the premier French food industry trade show at the Parc des Expositions here, provided
an ideal venue for that export drive, the executives said.
More than 100 companies exhibited in the U.S. pavilion, which drew strong traffic, boosted by an abundance of free sample offerings. First-time exhibitors included suppliers Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati, and Dean Foods Co., Franklin Park, Ill., while the distributor Fleming Cos., Oklahoma City, made its second trip as an exhibitor. Retailers from the United States at the show included Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y., and Price/Costco, Kirkland, Wash. The U.S. pavilion was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The five-day SIAL show, which ended last week, included some 4,000 exhibitors from 81 countries and an estimated 100,000 visitors. Surprisingly, a number of U.S. food suppliers said they previously have shied away from the huge Western European market because it was mature with local products and distributors. However, a weak dollar (which makes U.S. exports less expensive), new trade treaties and a better idea of what products might be successful at retail have combined to jump-start many U.S. companies' interest in Western European exports. Many vendors were targeting products that are closely identified with the United States, including Tex-Mex foods. Courtland Newberry, senior vice president of merchandising at Price/Costco, said the membership club operator was represented at SIAL as a "total company," including its Canadian, U.K. and import groups. He said Price/Costco also expected to meet with executives of Carrefour, one of the largest French hypermarket operators and a major Price/Costco shareholder, to discuss sourcing and the sharing of information.
In terms of products, Newberry said he was looking at some Dutch and Italian cheeses. The cheeses, which he did not name, could be sourced directly from the supplier and were noteworthy because of their quality packaging, he said.
While many U.S. exhibitors were focusing largely on Western European business, Fleming Cos. was using the show as a means of boosting its export business worldwide. Fleming, which currently doesn't have much business in Western Europe, made initial, but limited, contacts with retailers in that region while further developing its export opportunities in Eastern Europe and Latin and South America, said Thomas Lee, international account manager for Fleming International.
"We didn't get too many executives from the Western European countries because this is a very mature market," Lee told SN. "We're aware of that. The reason why we're here is because the SIAL show is so large, there are many different companies from all around the world coming here."
Still, Lee said he expected to meet with executives of Carrefour during SIAL.
"Part of the meeting is to investigate opportunities," he said. "Our thrust is to try to enter the European community. We already have a working relationship in Mexico with them."
Lee said he made contact with a number of executives from eastern Russia and South America and received "a fair number of requests" from Scandinavian companies interested in Fleming's international distribution. Fleming was promoting its three-tier private-label program, but it also exports meat and produce.
Procter & Gamble, which has its international food and beverage headquarters in Geneva, focused its export drive on selecting unique products for Western Europe. It is concentrating on Pringles-brand snacks in hopes of gaining a leading share in the snack food market, said Charles Awad, brand manager. The supplier launched Pringles in France in September at Monoprix supermarkets (which are owned by the Galeries Lafayette department store group) and expects to gain wider French distribution through Carrefour.
Other P&G food and beverage brands, such as Jif peanut butter and Folger's coffee, are on P&G's list of export items, but "the focus is on Pringles," Awad said.
Pringles has achieved some success in the U.K. market, he said, by gaining a 10% to 15% share of the snack category in the three years since it was launched. "What consumers have been telling us is Pringles is top quality," he said.
Also driving for unique product introductions were the large number of U.S. suppliers exhibiting Tex-Mex foods, including tortilla chips, salsas and other sauces.
About 12 of the suppliers in the U.S. pavilion featured some Tex-Mex products, making it one of the best-represented categories. (A similar number of seafood suppliers were in the pavilion.)
"At SIAL two years ago, there was me and one other guy selling tortilla chips," said William "Rally" Ralston, president of Great Western Tortilla Co., Denver. "Walk around here now."
Ralston said he believes Tex-Mex is going to be a major category in Western Europe. Great Western markets Buffalo Bill's brand chips and sauces.
Ralston, who exports to Germany, Austria and Switzerland, said the weak dollar means international buyers can look more seriously at U.S. products. "It's a good time to export," he said.
Jardine Foods, Buda, Texas, a Tex-Mex supplier making its first trip to SIAL, is looking to build on some promotions it's done with French and Belgian retailers.
"We came over here to learn about the market and evaluate existing customers," said Danny Jardine 3rd, customer development representative. Jardine added that he believes the European infatuation with Tex-Mex stems from customer awareness. "They see Tex-Mex as popular in the United States and they're trying to get it into their country," he said.
Dean Foods, and its division Dean Foods Vegetable Co., in Green Bay, Wis., exhibited at SIAL as part of the company's drive to increase overall exports to areas including Western Europe and the Middle East, said Ab Wilson, senior vice president for sales and marketing, Dean Foods Vegetable Co. Dean is focusing canned vegetables, peanut butter, dairy creamers, pickles and frozens.
"As far as vegetables are concerned, I think Europe has had a problem with production," he said. "They are more likely to do business with the U.S. as a stable supplier. Hopefully, less restrictive tariffs will help us do business, also."
Dean's export business is good in England, Germany and Switzerland, but not as developed in France, which has more of its own local products for sale at retail.
Wilson said he believes the export opportunities are greater in Western Europe than Eastern Europe, which, he said, is hampered by a lack of clear business procedures. "We haven't pursued [Eastern Europe] because they are so confused," he said. "I can see us pursuing it in the future as things become more stable."
Mother's Cake & Cookie Co., Oakland, Calif., used the SIAL show to make its official launch in Western Europe.
Mother's currently exports to the Pacific Rim, South America and the Middle East, but Western Europe has represented "the last frontier" for the supplier, said Robert Teninga, vice president of business development.
"This established the launch," Teninga said.
Although Western Europe represents a large market, it also is a "complicated market" to enter because of varying item-by-item sugar tariffs, he said.
Mother's already has lined up distributors to supply retail stores in France and England, Teninga said. He declined, however, to name the distributors involved.
Despite the well-known expertise the French have for producing sweets and pastries over the years, Teninga said he believes Mother's can be successful in France.
"It's a challenge, but any new market is going to be a challenge," Teninga said. "But at least we're ahead in the ball game, because they already like sweets."