A Tasteful Fit

Whet your appetite by targeting the lucrative specialty food industry.

Last year, weeks before her tomato-less artisan fruit ketchup business launched, Erika Kerekes started wearing the logoed T-shirts she'd ordered for Not Ketchup. She told her husband, who didn't understand why she'd purchased the garments before her product was available, that the shirts "just made it feel real."

The California woman is so pleased with her logo she makes jokes about tattooing it onto her forehead; instead, she settled on slapping the simple, bold graphic on hundreds of T-shirts, aprons, embroidered caps and car magnets. "The product is really good, but the name and logo are the two best decisions I've made in launching my business," Kerekes says. "The logo is arresting enough that no matter what it's on, strangers stop me on the street to ask about it."

Not Ketchup is part of the ever-expanding market of specialty foods. Healthy, organic and other niche eats are mainstream these days, thanks to label-conscious shoppers and the proliferation of foodie culture on Instagram and other social media sites. In fact, in 2014, Inc. magazine pointed to specialty foods as one of the top industries for starting a new company.

Branding is paramount for these budding businesses, with many selling the story behind the product as much as the product itself, creating a unique opportunity for savvy decorators. "Specialty foods like ours have more personality than some of the national brands," says Julie Busha, owner of Slawsa, an all-natural condiment that combines cabbage slaw and salsa. "We don't have the millions of marketing dollars that the major players have, so it's important we have the voices of our customers to help us spread the word of our products."

That means turning eager customers into walking billboards. Busha sells T-shirts with vintage prints on www.slawsa.com, in addition to using them as giveaways. She also wore one of her company tees when she appeared on "Shark Tank," ABC's reality show for entrepreneurs. "I felt wearing that best expressed the personality of our brand versus wearing a stuffy suit," Busha adds.

When working with specialty food clients, look for opportunities to upsell and add on to orders. For instance, many culinary startups benefit from branded aprons for supermarket product demos, farmers markets or food festivals. An apron with multiple pockets can be particularly helpful for managing cash transactions, says Monica Obando, who runs Santa Monica Florida Honey with her sister. The women wear bee-patterned aprons with three pockets as part of their uniform when peddling their natural product.

Another avenue to consider is presenting garments made of organic cotton, or recycled polyester fibers, since many specialty food companies market the organic or eco-friendly nature of their own products. "We always try and push that because that's their little niche," says Bill Pope, owner of Santa Cruz, CA-based The Print Gallery. The decorator counts a gourmet cookie company and organic sauerkraut maker among its clients. Pope notes that the upsell works about half the time, depending on a client's budget for branded gear.

In addition to apparel, consider pitching logoed totes and reusable grocery bags, which double as product packaging and are a welcome giveaway for farmers market shoppers.

Be sure to highlight the power of promotional apparel to specialty food clients. Kerekes of Not Ketchup quickly became a believer. She gave out about 20 branded T-shirts to customers at one of her first product demos. Two months later, on the way to a restaurant with her family, she was thrilled to see a pedestrian proudly sporting one of the shirts. "You give somebody a shirt that they're going to wear," she says, "and every time they wear it, you're earning back the cost of it." – TH