We arrived at the Radisson in Manchester's Expo Center about 10:45 and it was already pretty busy. There was a steel drum band playing in the background which of course made us smile a bit. After a pit stop at the bathroom (where the sampling of local products started early as the soap and lotion in there were from vendors at the expo) we started to make our way around the room. There were SO MANY tables to stop and check out merchandise! Since we were standing in front of our two favorite NH restaurants - T-Bones and The Common Man - we decided that would be a great starting point.
As we made our way through the dozens of booths set up throughout the room, we were amazed at how many great companies have taken root in New Hampshire. Some of them we had heard of before (like Camp Mix Spices and Crazy Camel Dessert Hummus). We tried samples from lots of different vendors - pulled pork, BBQ sauces, soup, whoopie pies, cookies, bread, jams, various condiments, maple products, tea, soda - there were so many things to see and try that it truly was as they billed it: a "try it & buy it" event. There wasn't just food available - many local artisans had their products for sale and there were several local non-profit and media organizations showing what they offered as well. For New Hampshire consumers looking to buy local products, this expo is a great opportunity to see what is available.
We walked away with lots of marketing material from various vendors; there were so many things that we looked at or tasted that while we wanted to get something from everyone - we knew that just wasn't possible. It was important to us to make sure we had all this on-hand for future reference; for example, there was one table with great gourmet ketchups and BBQ sauces, but we have so many condiments at home that we couldn't justify the purchase. They gave us a sample bottle with their contact information on it so we had it available.
All the marketing material from the various vendors we collected.
The SWAG we collected - discount coupons, gourmet ketchup samples, and recipes are the highlights.
With all of those vendors to sample, talk with, and choose from, there were definitely a bunch that stood out to us. Among them were:
LaBelle Winery (website) - Of the wineries that were on-site for the expo, these guys seemed to be the most diverse and friendly. The winemaker - Amy LaBelle - spent lots of time talking to us about her product and was very proud of it. From what I could tell, she has every right to be; all but one of the many wines they were selling were award-winning including her unique trio of cooking wines (Jalapeno, Sweet Onion, and Heirloom Tomato). We signed up for one of their free wine open-houses at the end of the month when they have a wine tasting as well as samplings from other local vendors as well.
White Oaks Farm, Inc. (website) - The specialty that these guys were showcasing were gourmet macaroons. We received our sampling as we made our way to the bathrooms, and they were very tasty. They contain no flour, leavening, shortening, salt, artificial preservatives, egg yolk, cholesterol, dairy products, or coconut - which makes these great for most special diets.
The True Nut Co. (website) - These guys specialize in maple roasted almonds. They were offering samples of at least 3 different flavors of their maple roasted almonds that were all unique and delicious. Our favorite was the Maple Roasted Coconut - we have their card. We'll be ordering some of those at some point, I'm sure.
Weeping Willow Fine Arts (website) - Usually at these fairs, I'm not terribly "wow"ed by the jewelry that's offered. I feel like it often times is repetitive and mundane - beads, beads, and hey look - beads. Sometimes the beads include Swarovski crystals - wow. However, this work was stunning - they are handmade glass pendants, wine stoppers, and plates that the artist has hand-cut and melded together in a kiln. There were some pieces that were "landscape" pieces where she had cut the glass to make trees, fish, and houses. Absolutely beautiful - I almost got a necklace, but decided to hold out. After all - I do turn 30 this year (wink, wink).
KC's Rib Shack Barbecue (website) - Being in New England, good BBQ joints are not exactly something easily found. However, these guys were offering samplings of several different sauces (including of course various BBQ sauces and a jerk marinade) that were quite good - and they also had samples of their pulled pork available (you just had to ask!). The pulled pork was quite good (we were too full to buy a whole sandwich from the all the samples we had) and we'll be making a trip to Manchester at some point to try them live & in person.
Fantastic Fortunes (website) - This company makes gourmet fortune cookies with custom messages inside. They just opened in September 2009, but thanks to NH Chronicle and the Phantom Gourmet - their business is booming! We were able to chat with one of the staff for a bit and she told us about all the great ideas for using these cookies she's seen including telling people they were going to be grandparents, announcing job promotions, and of course marriage proposals. They had samples of how the cookie tastes and I have to say it was the best fortune cookie I've ever tried.
Van Otis Chocolates (website) - I would not doubt if any of you reading this have heard of Van Otis before as I know I have seen them in stores. However, their gourmet popcorn flavors that were out on sample today were - in my opinion - the best of the gourmet popcorns available at the expo. Sure, their chocolate was quite good as well (their fudge is smoother than it is grainy), but the popcorn was crunchy and delicious despite having hot liquid dumped all over it in the process of making it. Steve's favorite was the maple popcorn. They offer factory tours right in Manchester for only $5.00 - if anyone is interested in going... (again - wink wink).
Squamscot Beverages (website) - This company had QUITE the sampling of their homemade sodas available for sample and purchase. Their ingredients were better than those found in commercial sodas (cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup and no added caffeine to their cola) and the taste was pretty darn good. The one that we both enjoyed was the Maple Cream Soda - and yes, it made it into a six-pack that we purchased to bring home.
Saffie's Neighborhood Bakery (website) - These guys had a total of 16 different varieties of whoopie pies available for sampling including chocolate & peanut butter, oatmeal & vanilla, butterscotch, pumpkin pie, banana split, and chocolate mocha. We really enjoyed the samples that we tried and were impressed with the creativity that went into picking their pie flavors (who ever heard of a pink lemonade whoopie pie, anyways!). According to one of their staff, the closest place for us to get one is a local sub shop where they have them available - but since they're right in Londonderry (a mere 15 minute ride away), we could also just go and take our pick of their great whoopie pies.
The Mill Fudge Factory (website) - Admittedly, we didn't get to sample as many of their flavors as we wanted to because the booth was jammed. What we did try was quite good; I tried the cranberry maple walnut and was impressed by how well the cranberry did against the maple walnut flavor that I love in a good fudge. It was only natural that these guys made our list because really - we're suckers for a good fudge.
Knot-Again Cutting Boards (website) - What impressed me specifically about this vendor wasn't just that his handmade wooden cutting boards were beautiful, but that he was willing to chat with us about the benefits of a wooden cutting board. At some point we would like to invest in a good wooden cutting board, and he explained to us about the type of construction he uses, the wood he uses, how to care for a wooden cutting board, and even addressed concerns we have about bacteria growth on ALL types of cutting boards. I would not hesitate to buy from Knot-Again when we are ready to purchase one - they were beautiful and arguably better quality than would be found in a mass-produced board.
Life's Little Pleasures (website) - I'm always a sucker for a vendor who offers soup and dip mixes. These guys had quite an offering of dip samples as well as a sample of their Friendship Soup for expo-goers. The soup that was being sampled was pretty tasty, and we tried several of their dips as well. Steve really enjoyed their bacon-horseradish dip, I liked their dill dip, and we both thought their maple-walnut dip was tasty as well. This was one of the stops where we purchased some of the goods and likely would do so again. In fact - we'll be having one of their soup mixes (black bean & corn) for dinner tonight!
All in all, we had a great time at the expo and were amazed at the amount of products that are available through local vendors. This was a great opportunity for them to showcase their goods and to hopefully get more customers drawn to them. We chatted with one booth - Crazy Camel Dessert Hummus - about places that we thought their product could do well in, so it's also a good way for them to get ideas and feedback to improve and grow their business (I can't believe we were the only ones in hundreds of people batting ideas around). To see so many New Hampshire businesses working hard and making themselves known was really cool and refreshing.
As I already alluded to... we did walk away with some purchases of our own. Not only did we get the 6-pack of Squamscot sodas and the black-bean & corn soup mix, we also got 2 different cocoa flavors, a broccoli & cheddar soup mix, maple beef jerky, apple wine with maple syrup, and a coconut cheeseball mix (not shown because it was in a different bag that I forgot about).
We are looking forward to partaking in what we bought today, and can't wait to keep checking in with the other vendors we saw and purchasing their goods in the future as well.
The Made in NH Expo is open until tomorrow afternoon, so if you have the opportunity to head over there and check it out - you definitely should. It's well worth the price of admission.