Capital Region

Taste NY stores see sales triple in 2016

'It's not a hard sell at all'
Nathalie Whitton of Burnt Hills helps a customer with a sample of Dominick's pasta sauce at the Homegrown Flavors event.
Nathalie Whitton of Burnt Hills helps a customer with a sample of Dominick's pasta sauce at the Homegrown Flavors event.

More than 1,100 New York food growers and producers are now participating in Taste NY, a buy-local, eat-local, drink-local state promotion designed to boost agritourism and promote New York’s food and beverage industries.

The program was begun in 2013 and has seen participation grow substantially each year since. In 2016, operating on a $1.1 million state budget appropriation, the Taste NY program rang up $13.1 million in sales at its various locations, nearly triple the $4.5 million it realized in 2015.

Richard Ball, the state’s commissioner of agriculture and markets, said the growth stems from the fact that the program basically sells itself.

“It’s not a hard sell to say, ‘You should try something local and fresh,’ ” he said. “It’s not a hard sell at all.”

Ball’s working life has been spent in farm fields, not the corridors of state government. He and his family operate Schoharie Valley Farms and the large Carrot Barn store on Route 30 in Schoharie, so he’s familiar with the challenges and rewards of getting local products to local consumers.

Taste NY was launched shortly before Ball was appointed to his current post, in 2014. He walked into a young program that he could embrace and help to grow. It’s great, he said, “for me as a farmer coming into government service for the first time to be part of something that connects the dots between consumer and producer.”

Taste NY locations now number more than 60 and range from display cases in stores to standalone kiosks to roadside welcome centers. There are cafes, bars, concessions and pop-up tents or tables at events. A full-fledged marketplace in Grand Central Terminal reached $1.7 million in sales in 2016.

Most Taste NY points of sale are in locations with heavy travel traffic, such as airports, train stations and Thruway travel plazas. The target is New Yorkers curious about food produced in their own state but that is perhaps not available in their local stores, as well as non-residents interested in bringing back something from their travels.

“The name is kind of perfect,” Ball said. “‘Taste New York.’ It’s an opportunity to get a taste of it.”

A companion program — New York State Grown & Certified — is aimed at New York residents and restaurant professionals who want local goods in their pantries and on their menus. It involves wholesale, large-scale supply of foodstuffs to restaurants and grocery stores, rather than the selection of individual products one would find at a Taste NY location.

“It’s kind of a one-two punch, depending on the consumer,” Ball said.

Both programs feed into, and benefit from, the buy local-eat local trend that began to gain momentum in the early 2000s.

“For many years, grocery stores were far more interested in price than where it was grown,” Ball said. Now, grocers identify the origins of a locally grown item or locally produced food product, and restaurants highlight New York ingredients on their menus.

“We’ve clearly got a population that wants to know more about their food,” Ball said. “When I get around the growing community, I hear, ‘This is awesome; it opened up a new market.’”

Independent operators

Taste NY stores are operated independently, some by non-profit organizations. The state does not receive a cut of the sales revenue at the stores. It views the $1.1 million annual expense as a promotional investment, not a source of direct revenue, Ball said. It may reap some indirect benefit for the state, however, due to associated economic activity and tax revenue.

The Taste NY program will include anything produced in New York, but it tries to stock those products in stores closest to their points of origin and strives to change the offerings regularly. The inventory is generally food and drink, but beauty products produced in New York from farm-based products have also been accepted for sale.

The Daily Gazette spoke with three Albany-area producers whose goods are sold through Taste NY; each was happy with the results of the program, but each had a different take on the experience and the results.

Paul and Caroline Barrett, who make and market granola, muesli, trail mix, and nut-seed mixes through Our Daily Eats, are enjoying 30 percent annual sales growth. It’s hard to assign a percentage of that growth to a single advertising campaign or promotion, Paul Barrett said, but small companies have small promotional budgets, which makes any form of statewide exposure valuable.

“It brings different benefits to different producers,” he said. “There’s the real startup person. There’s more medium-sized persons like ourselves who use it for marketing benefits. We also see promotional co-branding opportunities. Where everybody benefits is the social media aspect.”

There’s also the one-off Taste NY promotional events: When Our Daily Eats got to present its goods in the Taste NY tent at the New York State Fair, it made more than $1,000 in sales in a single day. Which was huge, Barrett said.

Nine Pin Cider Works founder Alejandro Del Peral noted his company is experiencing major growth, but so is the entire hard cider market. And most Taste NY locations are not licensed to sell alcoholic beverages. 

As a result, it’s hard to quantify the program’s benefits for Nine Pin. But as the operator of a farm cidery working only with New York orchards, he appreciates the boost the agriculture and food industries receive from Taste NY.

“I feel like it’s done great things for New York,” he said. “It highlights that great things are made in New York.”

The Taste NY program also arranged for Nine Pin to be served in bar cars on Amtrak trains crossing the state, giving the company exposure to people who might just be passing through and would not otherwise know about the cider.

“That’s a big deal for us,” Del Peral said.

Cosmo Crupi participates in Taste NY without ever having signed up. The owner of Pizza By Dominick, in Slingerlands, also bottles a variety of Dominick’s Gourmet Pasta Sauce products in an Albany warehouse.

The sauces are available in many Capital Region stores, but he’ll get calls out of the blue from people far outside the region asking where they can buy it. Crupi eventually realized his distributor had entered the sauce in the Taste NY program — travelers were picking up bottles at highway rest areas and not tasting it until they got home — hours or days later.

“I get calls from western New York and the Hudson Valley all the time from people asking where they can get it,” Crupi said.

“They’ll try the product and like it. In that respect, [Taste NY] is really good for us.”

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Local diversity

Supermarkets in the modern era offer dozens or even hundreds of tomato sauces, beers, cheeses and cereals, all in the same store — either the mass-market favorites or something new or local that’s produced in small batches. 

The chance to support a farm or business right in town or the next county over does sway some shoppers to buy local, and supermarkets have begun to highlight local producers on their shelves.

On Saturday, six Capital Region Market 32 and Price Chopper locations hosted more than 40 local and regional suppliers — many of them Taste NY participants — so shoppers could meet them and sample their goods.

“As a homegrown business ourselves, we like to call special attention to our trade partners who are producing right here in New York,” spokeswoman Mona Golub said, via email. “We are deeply committed to sourcing locally grown, produced and manufactured products as a way of stimulating the economies in our local communities, satisfying regional tastes, ensuring farm-to-table freshness and continuing our long-standing practice of supporting small family businesses and farms.”

Future growth

Taste NY has experienced triple-digit sales growth each year since its debut. Commissioner Ball expects further expansion.

“Taste NY is going to continue to grow; the model has just grown so well,” he said.

New stores are planned for 2017, some with grab-and-go prepared food options. Locations will be added in state parks including Saratoga Spa State Park. The store at the Times Union Center will be expanded, and other sports/entertainment venues will gain stores. The use of pop-up retail sites at large-scale events such as the State Fair, the Saratoga Race Course meet and Barclay’s PGA Tournament will be increased.

One area of expansion is expected to be welcome centers — highway rest areas featuring Taste NY stores and promotion of local history, culture and tourism options. The first two welcome centers, in Broome and Suffolk counties, are hugely successful, Ball said, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo is seeking to create more around the state, each highlighting a particular region and its offerings. The first such expansion is underway near Fultonville, where a Thruway rest area and Taste NY store that opened just last year is being reworked into something larger.

However, the welcome center plan has run afoul of federal law: Creation of commercial sales operations has been banned on the rights of way of federally funded highways since the early 1960s. Vending machines are allowed under the law, so the Taste NY stores in the two existing welcome centers have been converted to self-checkout operations, on the theory that self-checkout might be legally akin to a vending machine.

Federal regulators are allowing these activities on a trial basis while they discuss the legality of sales at welcome centers with state officials.

Ball has entered the conversation, trying to convince the feds that the welcome centers promote the intent of the federal ban, which was to prevent interstate highways from sucking commerce away from Main Street businesses in nearby communities.

“Today, here’s the opportunity to promote the area itself to travelers and actually get people off the highway, and to Main Street,” Ball said.

Anywhere there’s cellular service, even on an unfamiliar interstate highway, it’s easy enough to find the nearest restaurant or brewery or cheesemaker. But a smartphone can’t give a taste of the foods and beverages they offer, or show how they fit into the fabric of the region. 

That’s the point of Taste NY.

“Here’s local stuff, and here’s why it’s special,” Ball said.

Tallying up Taste NY

2015 sales: $4.5 million
2016 sales: $13.1 million
2016 program budget: $1.1 million
Participating producers: 1,100-plus
Retail locations: 60-plus
Taste NY Bars: 2

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