by Cheryl Muñoz, founder and marketing lead, Sugar Beet Food Coop, Oak Park, IL
FamilyFarmed’s annual Good Food Festival & Conference is the oldest and largest event in the Midwest focused on local and sustainable food. At its heart are the producers, buyers, sellers and others who exhibit their businesses there.
The 12th annual Good Food Festival & Conference is scheduled for March 24-26 at Chicago’s UIC Forum. Exhibitor registration is open, and there is a $100 discount for participants who signed up by Dec. 9. Click here to see an exhibitor kit that includes an application form.
Several of our previous exhibitors have volunteered to share their experiences and the value of participating in this event. Here are the reflections shared by Cheryl Muñoz, founder and marketing lead of Sugar Beet Food Coop, a community grocery store that opened in August in Oak Park, a suburb just west of Chicago.
My “office” at Sugar Beet Food Coop is in the staff “lounge.” I am using quotes because these are wannabe spaces in our new co-op, which we opened to shoppers this past August in Oak Park, a suburb immediately west of Chicago.
Having opened just three months ago, we are still figuring out non-essentials such as offices and lounges. Putting a grocery store into motion consumes the time of our small and tireless staff endlessly, and we are not just any grocery store: We are a member-owned cooperative, now one of just two in the Chicago area (but the first in a wave of four that are at different stages of development).
So, as I pound away at my keyboard writing newsletters and returning emails to co-op owners, my “desk” is a table in the storage area in the back of the store. And I keep one ear on the back door that leads to our “loading dock” (it’s really just an alley).
I am listening for the knock of an employee showing up for work — or a delivery guy from one of our distributors. I am always excited to see who is coming to do business with Sugar Beet Food Coop, but I am overjoyed to open the door to one of the many farmers who make frequent deliveries to our community store.
Local farmers and producers are the heart and soul of our mission. While we may have access to local food now more than any time in recent years, it is hard to get a face-to-face audience with these hardworking people who grow the food we sell. They are busy, you know, making food happen and it’s nice to see them, dirty jeans and all.
This also is one of the most important things I have taken away from my participation over the past few years as an exhibitor at FamilyFarmed’s annual Good Food Festival & Conference. The event (which will next be held March 24-26 at Chicago’s UIC Forum) is a gathering spot for people who value and want to grow the market for local food that is produced sustainably, humanely and fairly.
And meeting the people who grow, make, sell, market, invest in, distribute and BUY Good Food is, in my opinion, the most valuable opportunity for the exhibitors at the Good Food Festival.
It took about four years for the Sugar Beet Coop to grow from an idea to a functioning market. As we were building momentum, I looked for opportunities to share our project with a greater audience and to learn from those who are shaping and driving the Good Food movement.
Our first year as an exhibitor in 2013 was a total immersion into this culture. Of course, I had attended the Good Food Festival before and really enjoyed it, but my experience was much more meaningful as an exhibitor. After days of talking to people about the work of opening a community-owned grocery store, a food co-op, and meeting hundreds of people (or thousands?!!)… I was exhausted. I answered the same questions over and over, I made our pitch until I was hoarse, but I learned a great deal about communicating our plans and our vision to an enthusiastic, discerning, questioning and curious community of food lovers.
They offered valuable feedback, helped me make connections and have stayed in touch through our development. Some of them have helped fund our project, some are now shoppers at our store and many of them sell their products at the Coop.
Sugar Beet Food Coop has participated in the Good Food Festival for three years and we will continue to do so. A lot has changed in a short time in the growing market for Good Food, and we stand to gain more industry knowledge in one weekend than we might gain the whole year.
We’ll meet new farmers and producers who are looking for opportunities to reach a broader audience. And we’ll celebrate and build upon the relationships that we have forged, over the years, with the good people who deliver Good Food to our back door.