Thousands of manufacturers and retailers will be attending this year’s Food & Drink Expo, the not-to-be-missed forum for growing business. Simon Creasey reports

It's a smorgasbord of the very best in food and drink and a chance for manufacturers large and small to get their products before the country's most powerful buyers.

In just over a week from now, buyers will descend on Birmingham's NEC exhibition centre to check out what British food producers, and a smattering of overseas companies, have got to offer at Food & Drink Expo the largest food and drink trade show in 2010.

They're in for an exciting ride, because suppliers have thrown off the recessionary shackles and are preparing to unveil a vast array of great-tasting food and drink. More than 600 individual suppliers have already signed up to showcase their wares across eight different shows. It's the perfect one-stop shop event, according to Jack Halliday, group sales manager for Food & Drink Expo.

"Expo enables retail buyers to meet and negotiate with hundreds of suppliers all in one place," says Halliday. "Visitors will be able to do a year's product sourcing all in one day while at the same time picking up new ideas from experts to help them move their own businesses forward."

In addition to the main Food & Drink Expo (F&DE), visitors will be able to attend Foodex, the Baking Industry Exhibition, Convenience Retailing Show, International Forecourt and Fuel Equipment Show, Café+, Off Licence Show and the Food & Drink Logistics Show.

Each brings something different to the event. Foodex, the renamed Foodex Meatex, covers every aspect of food and drink processing and packaging, while the Baking Industry Exhibition (BIE) brings together craft bakers and giant breadmakers.

The Convenience Retailing (CRS) and International Forecourt and Fuel Equipment Shows (IFFE) host exhibitors targeting specific retail environments and have events dedicated to these types of store including Café+, which provides tips on how c-stores can maximise their on-the-go food offering.

New this year is the dedicated Off Licence Show (OLS) the only UK show dedicated to the £12bn market, and the Food & Drink Logistics Show (F&DL), which ensures the whole supply chain is fully covered in this one mega-show.

The theme that ties all of the shows together is innovation, according to Halliday. "We may be emerging from the worst recession in decades but it's clear that the food and drink industry's appetite for innovation remains undimmed," he explains. "Research conducted by Expo found that, in spite of the downturn, 56% of companies exhibiting would be investing in NPD this year. Visitors to Expo will be among the first to see these innovations."

The innovations to which Halliday refers come from all manner of suppliers ranging from the smallest business through to the biggest multinational manufacturers.

Flying the flag for innovation particularly energetically are soft drinks companies, which are well represented at the event. Indeed many drinks suppliers are using the show as a launch pad for new product lines, or, in the case of high-quality cordial producer Belvoir Fruit Farms (F&DE stand S181), to unveil a stylish new look for their products.

In addition to taking five new flavours to the show Blackcurrant & Cox Apple Cordial, Cranberry Cordial, Raspberry Lemonade, Organic & Jasmine Pressé and Apple & Melon Pressé Belvoir will show off a new bottle to replace its existing milk bottle-style design and provide greater standout.

"This new bottle is a cross between an olive oil bottle and a cordial bottle and will give us a very elegant on-shelf presence as well as greater label space to shout about the naturalness of the product," says Belvoir MD Pev Manners. "We have been attending Expo since 1994 and feel it's an unrivalled platform to launch the new bottle designs to the UK's food, drink, hospitality and retail professionals."

Another soft drinks company hoping to make a splash at the show is James White Drinks (F&DE stand S158), which will unveil the latest super fruit (or vegetable) drink in the form of its Beet It beetroot shot. It's claimed that beetroot juice can help combat high blood pressure and improve stamina levels and Lawrence Mallinson, James White's founder, intends to wax lyrical about the product to buyers.

"We are gaining ground due to our innovation," says Mallinson. "Innovation is essential in this market."

It's a mantra shared by Fayrefield Foods' (F&DE stand V238) business manager Mike Coleman, who is putting a lot of faith in the company's new Guarana Antarcticá fruit shot, "Brazil in a can", manufactured by AmBev. The drink has a loyal following in its native Brazil the fruit the drink is made from only grows in the Amazon and the timing for a European push is perfect as Brazil's football team (coincidentally sponsored by Guarana) are red-hot favourites to win this summer's World Cup.

Expo has more to offer this heady mix of buyers than just drinks, however. This year's exhibition will feature a wide range of exotic food products from overseas and closer to home. How about a British rillette for example? A small family-run business Winkburn Hall (F&DE stand T170), which is renowned for its Alderton ham on the bone (a favourite of TV chef Rick Stein), has decided to chance its arm by creating a rillette using British pork.

"It is very popular in France and we hope British tastes have advanced sufficiently for end users to appreciate what a few years ago would have been unsaleable," says Winkburn Hall's owner Richard Craven-Smith-Milnes.

If rillettes are not to your taste then how about biltong? Coan Biltong (CRS stand B276) is attending the show for the first time. Expo attracts a high percentage of its target market, explains office and finance manager Julie Spalding.

"With snacks on the go being in such high demand, the appeal of Coan Biltong and jerky is simple," says Spalding. "It's a tasty ready-to-eat snack that's low in fat, high in protein and MSG-free."

Equally exotic is the number of new products that Spanish luxury food importer Delicioso (F&DE stand P221) is taking to the exhibition. These range from artisan jams, such as Kumquat Marmalade with Whisky and Kiwi Jam with Brandy, through to handmade salsas and charcuterie that includes wild boar and venison chorizos and salami.

"They are from the mountains of the Sierra de Albarracin near Teruel in Aragon and are full of mountain flavours, lightly smoked to help conserve them and only requiring ambient storage," says Delicioso's founder Kate Shirley-Quirk.

Closer to home, more instantly recognisable fodder will be on display with a number of regional development agencies (RDAs) showcasing their wares. Eleven Northern Irish companies are exhibiting with Invest Northern Ireland (F&DE stand T160), including the likes of Western Brand Poultry (F&DE stand T169), which is launching a new six-strong range of frozen chicken products to complement its existing fresh lines. Mash Direct (stand T164), the first Northern Irish-based company to scoop a Gold Award (for its popular Red Cabbage and Beetroot in the chilled savoury category) at The Grocer's recent food and drink awards, will unveil its Batoned Carrot in a Tangy Orange Sauce.

Among the other regions to have sent a contingent is Select Lincolnshire (F&DE S179). "To celebrate a food heritage second to none, the Select Lincolnshire marquee, now in its fifth year, offers a quality brand recognition and awareness to promote the county's unrivalled food and drink products in the local, regional and national marketplace," says Select Lincolnshire spokeswoman Charlotte Goy.

The aim of these regional bodies is to raise awareness of producers in their region and help them to connect with customers, an aspiration that Kerrygold's (F&DE stand P198) foodservice division shares. At the show it will launch a new range of Adams and Kerrygold products, including frozen and chilled butter portions with several flavour options and packet, block, grated and sliced Cheddar cheese of varying maturity. The company wants to raise its profile among key decision-makers within the UK foodservice channel at Expo, says Kerrygold's Dean Andrews, business development manager for foodservice.

"Until now we have not engaged directly with our industry peers and our exposure has been low in this channel," says Andrews. "Ultimately the show is for us to kickstart relationships that will in turn grow our customer base and result in double-digit growth in 2010."

Not all companies are exhibiting because they have a new product to show off, however. While pie company Higgidy (F&DE stand Q211) is taking its new seasonal 400g Slow Roast Tomato & West Country Cheddar quiche to the show, it intends to use the exhibition primarily to find new stockists for its range of pies and quiches.

Meanwhile Ginsters (Café+ stand J278) will be showcasting its complete range of savoury pastries and fresh sandwiches and talking to customers about its van sales service, which can deliver direct, nationwide up to six days a week with no need for advance ordering.

On the Hovis stand (CRS stand C281) the company intends to sing about its recent move to flour milled from 100% British wheat across its entire range.

Elsewhere, UK drinks sales and marketing company Chilli Marketing (OLS stand F308) will be looking to grow awareness of Swedish cider brand Rekorderlig. The cider is made from a combination of wild berries and spring water that flows under the Swedish brewery. It is currently stocked by Asda and Morrisons and the company is hopeful of achieving a listing with Sainsbury's and Bargain Booze shortly.

"We're hoping to develop our business in the c-store sector this year so Expo is a good opportunity for us to get this stunning Swedish cider in front of people and tell them all about this great product," says Chilli's MD Kieron Barton. He adds that the company is trying to push category boundaries with the cider, which is available in bottles or cans. Following on from the success of a winter cider that was exclusive to Morrisons, the company intends to launch a summer cider later this year.

The show doesn't have a major presence of alcoholic beverage producers but that plays into the hands of those who do attend, according to Nick Otley, director of Wales-based Otley Brewing Company (F&DE stand P180/5). Otley attended the last Food & Drink Expo two years ago and says that it was well worth the effort.

"When we exhibited last time there were only a handful of breweries in the entire place so because we were quite unique we got a lot of attention." Otley is looking to strike deals with some wholesalers rather than large retailers. "We've already turned down a couple of majors but that's not for us we're looking to keep it to small businesses," he says.

While for large companies Expo is a must attend, it's just as important for smaller businesses like Otley's. The show provides an opportunity for the companies that will define the food and drink landscape of the future to make a splash and forge relationships with buyers that will ensure their future growth. Many of today's established companies used the exhibition as a launch pad for their business and there are plenty of new exhibitors at this year's show with ambitious plans for the future.

Ashbourne Foods (F&DE stand T212), which produces biscuits, slices and muffins branded Sugar n Spice, is optimistic about what it will get out of the show. "Being a new business we are attending the show as we believe Expo offers us an ideal shop window to the serious purchasers of our type of products," says Ashbourne's director Graham Caldwell. "There are a lot of new products at this year's show so it is definitely worth even seasoned product buyers attending."

That's the general message that exhibitors want to reinforce. They argue that even the most jaded buyer should attend to make sure they're among the first to see a host of new products that could one day become a shopping list staple.

Key facts
Food & Drink Expo is the biggest food and drink trade show in 2010

: NEC Birmingham, Halls 3-5
When: 21-24 March
What: Food & Drink Expo, Foodex, Baking Industry Exhibition, Convenience Retailing Show, International Forecourt and Fuel Equipment Show, Café+, Off Licence Show, Food & Drink Logistics Show
Visit: register free at

Big hitters’ question time
One of the hottest tickets at this year's show is likely to be a ringside seat at the Business Briefing Theatre, which features heavyweight industry hitters exchanging blows over the "most important issues facing companies today", according to Expo group sales manager Jack Halliday.

Topics include the likes of 'To Tweet or not to Tweet' on 22 March with Marcus Carter, founder of the innovative Virtual Farmers Market site, which allows shoppers to browse for products on 3D market stores as well as Camilla Barnard, founder and marketing director of premium porridge and cereals brand Rude Health, which has built up a cult brand following thanks to its use of social media.

Just as contentious is panel session 'Countdown to starvation is the world going to run out of food?', on 22 March, which will see representatives of Oxfam, the BRC and the NFU go head-to-head.

Another debate that's attracting interest is 'Provenance over prudence has the recession changed the way we eat forever?', which will see Asda's corporate affairs director Paul Kelly discuss the food landscape with Soil Association commercial director Jim Twine and Leon Restaurants founder and CEO Henry Dimbleby.

Craft baking at its best
Craft baking is making a comeback - just look at the success of quality high-street bakery operators such as French chain Paul.

Buoyed by this resurgence in interest and following the success of Bakery Live in 2008 this year's Baking Industry Exhibition is going to be bigger and better than ever, focusing on a wide range of production environments from high volume through craft baking, packaging and bake-off.

The centrepiece of the show is a Craft Bakers Shop dedicated to retail products visitors can sample. There will also be a fully functioning bakery producing new products and old favourites with some of the country's best bakers showcasing the latest machines and high-quality ingredients from Europe's leading bakery suppliers including the likes of DCL Yeast, Britvic, Kern, Reiser and Rondo.

Another highlight is the Future Baker of the Year competition held by California Raisins, the raisin industry's international marketing board. California Raisins is looking for the best teams to compete live in its competition in the Baking Industry Exhibition Theatre, with the top prize a course at the Richemont School in Switzerland.

The Big Yum: Here’s the big yum with chocolate- coated pretzels
Pippa Witcher's eureka moment came on her honeymoon. The former food PR, who had helped launch a number of niche brands including Gü chocolate puddings, was travelling around the States with her new husband when she found herself picking up exciting foods from delis and supermarkets to give to friends in the UK.

One present in particular struck a chord - chocolate-covered pretzels. So Witcher, who'd always dreamed of having her own business, launched her own range called Chocolate Swerves under The Big Yum banner (F&DE stand S140).

Witcher, whose official job title at the business is 'chief yum', says she has already been contacted by some "top London food halls" and says she's hopeful that the company's second product caramel popcorn drizzled with chocolate will launch this year.

Great coffee ideas brewing
For c-store and coffee shop owners looking to make their operations more efficient and profitable the must-attend event is the Café+ Live show.

Food and drink experts will be on hand to talk visitors through how they made their own business a success and how others can follow suit. Highlights include New Zealander Matthew Clarke, who founded the Sacred café chain (21 March), a representative of Pret a Manger on how to deliver the perfect fresh sandwich offer (22 March), and experts from Costa, Nestlé and Love Smoothies talking about breakfast occasions, impulse snack offers and healthy treats on 23 March.

Market research company Him! will present do's and don'ts for business owners backed with hard data. Exhibiting companies include Coffee Nation, Cafe Society, Simply Coffee and Tchibo while a more unusual company worth making a beeline for is the Coffee Fairy.

The company buys coffee from Nicaraguan farmers at Fairtrade prices and part of the profits go towards educating children in the local community. "Cafe+ Live 2010 has something for everyone," says show director Matthew Butler. "Visitors will walk away armed with tips on how to make their offer more profitable."

Latest science made simple
Always one of the most eagerly awaited events, Campden's Innovation Day, which takes place on Monday 22 March, features nine presentations from food and drinks R&D experts Campden BRI covering a wide range of topics, including product development, quality control, manufacturing techniques and emerging technologies.

"The aim is to say we've done lots of research and this is where we are now at," says Campden's head of corporate communications Leighton James. He is keen to point out that the presentations are tailored to be digestible for people with a basic grasp of scientific knowledge.

"We will explain the benefits of a particular technology rather than go into great detail about the science behind it," says James. Subjects up for discussion include how allergens can be managed during the manufacturing process, calibrated colour measurement and managing antioxidant levels in food.

The presentations are free to attend although it's recommended that visitors book places in advance and after each talk there will be ample opportunity for questions. In addition, James says that visitors are welcome to swing by Campden BRI's stand.

Bear: Live like a bear and go 100% naked nature
Founded by personal trainer Hayley Gait Golding, Bear (F&DE stand T161) was inspired by a magazine article about bears who had forsaken their traditional woodland habitat and diet of fruit and berries for rubbish foraged from bins.

As a result the bears became unhealthy and obese. According to Gait Golding, Bear's healthy range of snacks was informed by the grizzly's traditional diet and her desire to provide "100% naked nature". The products are made from 100% fruit or 100% fruit and wholegrain.

Each bag comes in at under 100 calories and provides one of the 5-a-day fruit and veg or a third of the recommended daily wholegrain allowance. Bear's range is available in three varieties Fruit Nibbles, Granola Nibbles or Fruit Yo-Yos and flavours including Tropical Crunch, Apple Crumble and Mango Pineapple.

Muddy Boots: The beefburgers that are as good as they can be
It's a familiar tale - a young couple tires of the London lifestyle so they pack in their high-flying jobs and retreat to the countryside. Roland and Miranda Ballard moved back to Worcestershire in 2008 to set up a food business.

"We had a simple question," says Miranda. "With the billions of beefburgers and ready meals sold around the world, why are so many not getting top-quality beef and ingredients?"

So the duo set up Muddy Boots, whose aim is to use top-quality British beef to create great-tasting burgers and ready meals. The brand is stocked in 18 farm shops and delis.

"We do home delivery and continue to attend our farmers' markets but our main focus in the first half of this year is wholesale," says Miranda. The company (F&DE stand Y187) also promises exciting developments for later this year.

Breckland Orchard: British summers captured in new soft drinks range
Launching a new company at the height of a recession hardly seems like the most sensible thing to do. But that's what Claire Martinsen did when she left the marketing department at Mars to launch a drinks company.

Martinsen figured that if she could make a success of it when the economic climate was rocky, then she could make it any time.

So armed with recipes passed down from her grandmother, Norfolk-based Breckland Orchard (F&DE stand Q141) was born, offering Cloudy Lemonade and Ginger Beer & Chilli, which "tickles the back of the throat" and has picked up a couple of awards.

At the show she will launch Strawberry & Rhubarb, a "quintessentially British summer in a bottle"; and Pear & Elderflower, a "match made in heaven". Martinsen aims to build on current listings in delis, gastro pubs and farm shops.