Nothing like anoth
er season of industry awards to let everyone know what products and companies have risen to the top and finally
achieved recognition as the “best of the best” from amongst direct competition from their peers. For some, it is the critical recognition that goes along with, or possibly precedes, the commercial success every company desires.
Or is it?
Of the industry awards currently being given, only Chile Pepper Magazine’s “Fiery Food Challenge” and the Fiery Foods & Barbeque’s “Scovie Awards” are considered by most to be the “gold standard.” Newer awards, such as the Hot Pepper Awards and regional competitions’ one such as Jungle Jim’s Weekend of Fire “Wofi’s” are relatively new to the industry, yet their significance will ultimately be judged by their longevity in the long-term.
Focusing on the first two mentioned above, they are roughly the same in terms of the formula of how they are done. Each has a number of categories for which products can be entered, judged by a double-blind panel of judges to determine the winners. Each product entered is done so at a cost that benefits the contest’s parent organization, thus raising copious sums of money to both fund the awards themselves and the organization in the process. There are usually some rules, but it seems like the rules are merely guidelines and one can enter pretty much any product which laughably comes close to matching the categorical description desired.
In the end, the contests generate a list of first, second, and third place winners which allows companies to proudly beat their proverbial chests to exclaim how proud they are to sell award-winning products. Look at the most recent list of Golden Chile winners from this past 2012 ZestFest and you will see what I mean. However, if one looks closely, it is easy to notice something a little odd amongst all the winners.
Quite simply, they don’t all make their own stuff.
Now it’s not my intent to needlessly bash companies or pick on anyone simply for the sake of doing so, but facts are facts. Consider the curious case of Treehouse Foods, who won awards in five separate categories for Salsa. Treehouse Foods describes itself as:
“Founded in 2005, TreeHouse has expanded its branches through acquisitions to create a product portfolio which includes non-dairy powdered coffee creamer, canned soup, salad dressings and sauces, sugar-free drink mixes and sticks, instant oatmeal and hot cereals, macaroni and cheese, skillet dinners and other value-added side dishes and salads; salsa and Mexican sauces, jams and pie fillings under the E.D. Smith brand name, pickles and related products, products, and other food products including aseptic sauces, refrigerated salad dressings, and liquid non-dairy creamer.”
Yes, they are a major-league corporate entity. Strangely enough, you have to really dig deep to find out who actually MAKES that salsa. Treehouse is a parent company to Bay Valley Foods, yet another corporate entity. They, in turn, employ San Antonio Farms to make their salsa. San Antonio Farms has been around for 70+ years now, yet were recently acquired by Bay Valley Foods to become part of their “corporate family.” Corporate Family? Sounds quaint, doesn’t it? In reality, it is merely private labeling on a grand scale. Treehouse Foods may get the awards, but they should send those ribbons to San Antonio Farms as soon as it touches their hands, as it is THEIR products in the first place.
Consider also the case of Pepper Palace, Inc. Pepper Palace is a huge retailer of hot & spicy food products with mega-stores located in nine locations throughout the United States. They also have a large mail-order/online business as well. As a retailer, it is known that they are NOT producers of their own products and private label products to sell under their own name. Now the products are those for which they have purchased the license, but in no way is Pepper Palace involved in the creation or manufacture of products save for the labels placed on the products with their name on it.
This year, Pepper Palace won twenty-three awards…including eight 1st place “Golden Chile” awards. I’m sure it raised a huge pile of cash for Chile Pepper Magazine and is great advertising for a business which puts their own private labels some other company’s products .
Why don’t I just buy a truckload of Pace Picante Sauce and start selling it as “Joe’s Wildcat Picante Sauce” and enter it into a bunch of industry competitions? By sheer volume alone, I am sure to win some awards, right?
The answer: wrong. If any of these awards had two molecules of integrity to rub together, they would make it such that it was not possible to do this. If you win an award for your product, it damn well better be your own stuff. You might not make it yourself in your own kitchen and need a co-packer, but you should not be putting your labels on something that someone else makes and claiming it as “yours.”
Now this may seem to be a fairly myopic way of perceiving industry awards, so I present to you an opinion from one of the companies themselves. The following quote is from Michael Lampros, who is chief poobah of Gunther’s Gourmet, who is a winner of great many industry awards himself. When asked, he suggested:
1. To be a purist – the awards should only be opened to companies who create their own products – these products can be co-packed.
2. To be a realist – it should be opened to anyone who wants to enter – it does generate money for the producers (hopefully allowing them to put on a better show) and even if a company slaps a label on someone else’s product – they can use the awards as a sales promotion in their store. They have to make a living as well.
3. In the same vein – should Celebrity Chef owned companies, Pace, Quaker Steak (or any Nationally recognized company) be allowed? Do huge companies with endless monies that can afford multiple entries be allowed? They do not create products like we little guys do – they have a panel of “experts” do this. Are these companies good or bad for the show? My answer is yes – let them enter – if you beat them – it gives you bragging rights.
Bottom line – if you do not like losing to companies like any of the above – there is a simple answer – your company (Gunther’s included) needs to make a better product and beat them. Gunther’s had beaten and lost to all of the above companies – and I use all wins, whatever place, as a marketing opportunity.
If you start putting to many rules and regulations in the competition – then it only opens the door for too many non-eligible companies to try to find loop holes or sneaky ways to enter – thus opening the door for more arguments and thinning out the impact the awards holds within the community. Let anyone enter – if it is a true blind tasting – then the best product wins – giving the winner more reason to be proud of their product.”
Suffice to say, this is a problem as perceived by many within the spicy foods industry without an easily discernible solution. Is there a way to fix the system without simultaneously ruining the advertising dollars that the companies get for winning the awards and depleting the coffers of the organizations that give out the awards? I am hoping there is, since I would like to see the awards themselves improve the integrity of the process and elevate the significance of the honor of winning. Right now, there is a long way to go with that.