Dispatch

The view from the ground.

The Way to America’s Heart Is Through Its Stomach

The rise of food diplomacy will see the world's smallest countries elbowing their ajvar, pljeskavica, and musakhan onto your table.

ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP/Getty Images
ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP/Getty Images
ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP/Getty Images

New York's Fancy Food Show, a mammoth twice-a-year specialty food industry convention that took place from June 27 to 29, was quite the affair. There was Rick Bayless, reportedly one of Barack Obama's favorite chefs, making chicken tacos in the basement. Upstairs, Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi was posing for pictures with eager fans. Not too far away, candy-maker Jelly Belly made a copy of the Mona Lisa entirely out of its jelly beans.

But for food producers in some of the world's newest states and semi-states, the Fancy Food Show meant serious business. Delegations from far-flung locations such as Kosovo, the Palestinian territories, and French Polynesia were hawking their wares, all trying to get a piece of the burgeoning gourmet food market in the United States. As thousands of American foodies have come of age, the prize for winning over taste buds has grown potentially huge. According to the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, the industry group behind the Fancy Food Show, U.S. consumers spent more than $60 billion on specialty foods in 2009, accounting for 15.9 percent of American food sales. For producers in small nations (and would-be nations), the attraction is irresistible. The Palestinian Authority, which sent a delegation, exported approximately $558 million in goods in 2008; Americans spent more than $300 million last year on hummus alone.

 

New York’s Fancy Food Show, a mammoth twice-a-year specialty food industry convention that took place from June 27 to 29, was quite the affair. There was Rick Bayless, reportedly one of Barack Obama’s favorite chefs, making chicken tacos in the basement. Upstairs, Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi was posing for pictures with eager fans. Not too far away, candy-maker Jelly Belly made a copy of the Mona Lisa entirely out of its jelly beans.

But for food producers in some of the world’s newest states and semi-states, the Fancy Food Show meant serious business. Delegations from far-flung locations such as Kosovo, the Palestinian territories, and French Polynesia were hawking their wares, all trying to get a piece of the burgeoning gourmet food market in the United States. As thousands of American foodies have come of age, the prize for winning over taste buds has grown potentially huge. According to the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, the industry group behind the Fancy Food Show, U.S. consumers spent more than $60 billion on specialty foods in 2009, accounting for 15.9 percent of American food sales. For producers in small nations (and would-be nations), the attraction is irresistible. The Palestinian Authority, which sent a delegation, exported approximately $558 million in goods in 2008; Americans spent more than $300 million last year on hummus alone.

 

That’s one tasty potential payoff, but cracking the largest specialty food market in the world is no cakewalk. You can’t just take a local specialty, slap a fancy English-language label on it, and ship it over. Thanks to a combination of byzantine U.S. import regulations, an aggressive domestic industry, and a handful of juggernaut retail chains such as Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and regional supermarkets, foreign producers from small countries have to fight to see their labels on the shelves — not to mention to get them sold.

Take EuroFood, a recent guest at the Fancy Food show. This small Kosovar company from the provincial town of Prizren specializes in sauces and jellies. At the show, samples of ajvar (a spicy Balkan eggplant-and-pepper dip) were there for the taking, next to helpful explanations of the dish’s provenance and ingredients. And there were thousands of booths just like this — endless rows of friendly producers and exhibitors, trying desperately to attract the attention of U.S. wholesalers and distributors.

The Kosovars were hardly alone; just a few yards away was the Palestinian pavilion, and beyond that, the Albanian delegation. Madico, a Jordan Valley-based date grower, offered samples of its products, directing potential buyers to its English-language website. Sinokrot, one of the largest companies in the West Bank and a trade-show veteran, was promoting its Jericho chocolate wafers, which boast an anthropomorphized, smiling cable car on their packaging. (Sinokrot also operates the concession — and, yes, cable cars — at the tourist destination of the Mount of Temptation, where Christ is said to have fasted for 40 days.)

Trade show by trade show, these small countries are elbowing their products into American grocery stores. But the competition is fierce: The storied successes of Italy and France are ever on display. A well-stocked Italian pavilion at the Fancy Food Show had more than 100 vendors, many of whom were offering high-end meats such as porchetta and salame. And French exhibitors had no problem finding buyers for their cheeses and pastries. In 2009, France exported about $150 million worth of cheese and Italy sent about $1.2 billion worth of wine to the United States.

Smaller nations would love to mimic that success — but it’s a tough sell getting American foodies to start thinking of, say, the Balkans as a gastronomic hot spot. That hasn’t stopped them from adopting the tactics necessary for survival in the U.S. market. Canaan Fair Trade, for example, is an exporter affiliated with the Palestinian Fair Trade Association, a co-op of more than 1,200 farmers in and around the West Bank city of Jenin. The organization has offices in the United States, American employees, and the marketing savvy needed to attract American consumers. The company’s promotional materials include a smiling Palestinian farmer and information about the organization’s university scholarships for Palestinian teenagers. Its olive oil exports to the United States and Europe in 2008 totaled $3.8 million in sales.

So there’s a long way to go, which is why the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has become an inescapable presence at the Fancy Food Show over the past several years, bringing in exhibitors from far-flung locales such as Georgia and Ghana. Most of these countries already have specialty products and producers; what they need is the know-how to get them to market. A USAID-funded workshop before the Fancy Food Show, for example, prepared Palestinian vendors for the event. In the Palestinian pavilion, exhibitors gladly handed out a USAID-produced "Palestine: Taste the Tradition" booklet with recipes for such local specialties as maftoul and musakhan.

USAID’s Agribusiness Project Serbia has taken a similar approach, seeking out local vendors and then helping them navigate the ins and outs of the foreign market. This year, among the vendors was the fruit and mushroom producer Igda Impex, while Sabac Dairy attracted passersby with feta cheese wrapped in alluring, Western European-style packaging. Serbian companies have had a good record at the Fancy Food Show before — in 2008, local company Foodland won a "Best New Juice Product" for its Terra Organica wild strawberry nectar.

Kosovo has further to go before its USAID-aided booths are truly a winning affair. The country’s modest pavilion reflected the territory’s still-developing economy, and finished products beyond jams, jellies, and sauces were nowhere to be found. But in the best tradition of convention schwag, there were giveaways: Guests left with a variety of literature and pens emblazoned with the names of various Kosovar firms.

The endless American appetite for culinary novelty is a boon for small, foreign food-makers — and there are success stories. In 2005, Palestine exported just $63,000 worth of agricultural products to the United States; today it sends over $1 million. Palestinian olive oil has become a primary ingredient in the hot-selling Dr. Bronner’s soap brand, and pljeskavica, a Balkan-style hamburger, has become a culinary trend of sorts in New York lately. Agave syrup was virtually unknown in the United States a few years ago; now Mexican vendors are seeing booming sales of the low-calorie sweetener. And 10n years ago, Safeway and Giant didn’t have nearly the variety of ethnic, specialty, and imported foods they do now.

While Kosovar spreads and Serbian cheese weren’t the trendiest items at this year’s Fancy Food Show (that spot was reserved for the gluten-free products like Snyder’s of Hanover‘s pretzels and U.S.-made hummus), the future looks bright. If these companies can play their cards right, Americans may just be dipping their pita chips in ajvar before chowing down on some musakhan.

Neal Ungerleider is a New York-based journalist who covers Middle Eastern news and business for trueslant.com.

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