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The Tale of the Taste the Region Gift Box

By Alison Clarke

In an effort to help farmers and other small scale processors market their value- added products, “Taste the Regions”, a specialty food gift box was launched in 2009.  In these especially difficult days of financial support for not-for-profit organizations, it was also thought to be a small step towards raising funds for two not-for-profit organizations: NY Farms!, a broad-based food system education group, and the NY Small Scale Food Processors’ Association (NYSSFPA), an all volunteer trade association supporting processors with fewer than 20 employees.

Adirondack region gift box Photo by Laurie Davis

NY Farms! received a grant from the NY Farm Viability Institute to develop these gift boxes for 5 of the 11 tourism regions of the state: Adirondacks, Finger Lakes, Hudson Valley, Long Island and Central Leatherstocking.  In 2008, when the grant expired, the project was not quite ready for marketing, so NYSSFPA took the helm.  There was no funding, but plenty of enthusiasm.

Though a beautiful, glossy brochure had been developed, it didn’t fulfill the need for a “mini catalog”.  Our first goal was to revamp the brochure into one that listed all of the producer’s information so that consumers could re-order their favorite gift box products.  We also included a simple evaluation form for gift recipients to fill out along with information about the goals of the project.  Although regional shippers had been established, some changes had occurred, another reason the original brochure was no longer valid.  Regrettably, all of the glossy brochures produced with grant funds had to be “recycled”.

NYSSFPA tackled one issue at a time, aware that the producers were patiently waiting to be paid.  Four of the five regions were ready to begin shipping (The Leatherstocking region’s box was still in progress). We set the retail price of the box at $45 each.  We reached that figure after allocating $25 for wholesale cost of product, $5 to the shipper, $5 for packaging, $5 for marketing, $5 profit.  We have memos of understanding with the shippers and with the producers.  On average there are 6 to 8 regional items per box.

We began marketing outreach by sending letters to the NYS Congresspersons in those regions, as well as to state legislators, especially those who had connections to agriculture and small business.  By the end of the summer of 2009 we began to plan for a “grand opening” to attract publicity.  In discussions with the new NY Wine and Culinary Center in Canandaigua, NY, part of the Finger Lakes Region for which we had a gift box, we were allowed use of their dining room to showcase and sell the first boxes in November of 2009.   We were also encouraged to have a booth at both of the NYS Agriculture and Markets PRIDE of NY Harvest shows in Syracuse and Albany.

Hudson Valley region gift box Photo by Beth Linskey

We now had three large promotional events looming with the prospect of holiday sales, and we felt we needed more boxes in hand.  We asked each of the regional shippers to prepare and transport 50 boxes to the grand opening in Canandaigua.  The “ribbon cutting” at the grand opening was very successful, and the publicity was excellent, but the Harvest Fest sales were disappointing. People were most interested in the wine tasting.  Despite the holiday timing, the venue did not work.

Searching for a reasonable niche market, we decided that the “realtor gifts to home buyers” seemed a natural outlet.  Over the next few months we made many calls to realtors in the four active regions.  Fortuitously, in two regions we reached the Board of Realtors during their major conferences, and in one region the director was so excited she offered a drawing of a box at her conference.  We now had a new glossy flyer with logos of the regions, information about the project and purchasing options through our new Pay Pal account.  We wrapped the regional catalogues around each of these flyers and sent them to the realtor conferences and to other agencies.  Simultaneously, our fifth region, Central NY/Leatherstocking came on board and was included in this effort.  Currently we need a call-back effort to follow-up on this outreach, but we realize that the realty market is struggling.

NYS Agriculture and Markets staff have been especially helpful and one, an experienced marketing guru, gave us the opportunity to sell at a major Columbus Circle outdoor holiday market in New York City.  Members traveled once a week during December to sell our gift boxes in this outdoor tent setting tolerating many weather challenges.  We had to rent a garage to safely store our boxes from week to week, and though the idea was wonderful, our costs cancelled out any profits.

Currently we have gone “back to the drawing board”.   We have had meetings with the Syracuse University Entrepreneurship Center to explore the concept of having a student intern work on marketing, and we have offered a “buy a case at a time” deal.   We are selling at some farmers markets, engaged in another legislator mailing, and are now in the midst of “tastings” at Harvest Fest booths.  We are not emphasizing buying directly but showcasing and handing out our flyer for Pay Pal purchasing and shipping.  Customers seem more receptive this year and many have responded that it was the perfect gift for family, solving their gift giving dilemmas. Others folks have purchased these gift boxes because they have moved to a new location and want to send a gift from NYS.

We just recently connected with a potential marketing resource: a young man who is majoring in marketing and wants to assist farmers and small businesses.  He is on the top of our list for future marketing assistance!

For more information please visit our web site at www.nyssfpa.com and click on the “Taste the Regions” specialty box project.  We welcome your ideas and your support.

Alison Clarke is the Secretary to the Board of the NY Small Scale Food Processors’ Association and the Coordinator of the Taste the Regions project.  She can be reached by email at accompost@gmail.com.

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