The two snack brands are among the winners of Foxtrot Market’s 2023 Up and Comers Awards announced last week, a competition to find the tastiest, most interesting, and compelling new food brands in America.
Ever since the first Foxtrot store opened in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood in 2015, the convenience store has stocked its shelves with products that have a local connection or a social-impact component. As a result, it’s become a unique trendsetter in food and snacks.
Now with 33 locations across four cities—Austin, Chicago, Dallas, and Washington, D.C.—Foxtrot’s merchandise buyers are constantly on the hunt for new and exciting products.
“When we started Foxtrot, it was all about curation,” says Foxtrot cofounder and chairman Mike LaVitola. “We found a lot of store shelves were all too often filled with tired products or things you could find anywhere. So we’ve always tried to go and seek out new and emerging brands. What that means is, it’s something brands and new entrepreneurs can depend on that we’ll be out there every year putting out the call for what’s new and next.”
Up and Comers consists of winners across five categories. Geem is the 2023 Hero Winner, an award based on both taste and brand purpose. Ting’s won the Innovation Award, given to the product that impresses judges most with its ability to deliver the unexpected. A Friendly Bread’s frozen grilled cheese sandwiches won Classic Product Reimagined, a rather self-explanatory category. Pink Salt Kitchen’s Thai-style roasted chili jam won the Just Damn Good award, a category described in Foxtrot’s judging memo as “the product we have to taste, re-taste, let us just taste one more time . . . .” And the Best Packaging honor went to the mini-paint-can style of New York-based Grounds Coffee.
Candice Choi founded Geem in 2022, and says she got to know Foxtrot during her time at Northwestern University, and always admired the variety of AAPI-founded brands it carried. “Anyone in CPG knows Foxtrot is a tastemaker, especially with minority-led brands,” says Choi. “They have a whole section for Asian food, which isn’t really common for smaller, independent stores. That was a big consideration when I was thinking if Geem would be a good fit. I wanted to be somewhere that would give me a chance.”
Winning the 2021 Up and Comer “Hero Award” helped boost the profile of Omsom, a brand of authentic Asian sauces and noodles cofounded by sisters Vanessa and Kim Pham just a year earlier in 2020. Vanessa Pham was a judge for the 2023 competition, and says one of the biggest impacts of winning goes beyond merely getting on Foxtrot’s shelves. “Foxtrot does a great job telling the stories of the new brands,” says Pham. “That’s one of the biggest challenges as an emerging brand. Once you’ve gotten on the shelf, how do you educate people about your product, about who your brand is? And I think Foxtrot does a great job at creating a retail environment where their shoppers are interested in discovery. So the Up and Comers program has special signage and spotlight on these new brands.”
The path to picking the next big thing
Rewind a couple of months, and in early November, more than 400 products were narrowed to 47 after being evaluated on their price, style, and overall commercial viability. These remaining contenders are arranged and organized on a kitchen island in Foxtrot’s 11th floor offices overlooking Chicago, for a tasting and discussion session in order to further whittle the competition down to a final 10 products.
Foxtrot staffers from every department mingle around the table, trying and discussing the choices in front of them. The vibe is casual, but listen closely and the conversations veer from taste and packaging, to pricing and fit within the store’s current lineup in various product categories. As I listen in, I hear people talking about something that tastes like “a healthy Butterfinger,” as well as teabag cocktails, almond protein powder, and more.
Product samples from the 10 finalists, as well as short biographies on each brand’s story, are sent to a panel of seven judges, including LaVitola and Pham, as well as the founders of former Up and Comers finalists and winners Balkan Bites, Bawi, and Mama Teav’s.
Rob Schellenberg, the VP of Foxtrot’s creative studio, says this year felt like a return to the basics. “While we have the award for Classic Product Reimagined, this felt like a year in which most of the finalists could win that honor,” he says. “Personally, I appreciate seeing deliciousness take priority over trendy. Oftentimes, new CPG puts too much emphasis on the hottest functional ingredient—probiotics, adaptogens—and doesn’t allow for flavor to be the number-one priority. I think audiences are looking for authenticity in what they eat, avoiding false claims, and just being transparent about what is healthy and what is not. For packaging, it’s important to match that sentiment of being authentic with what you are selling. It builds trust with the brand.”
Pham says the judging process was incredibly tough, but she did have an overall favorite. “The one I’d call out is Pink Salt, and I’ve been using it in everything,” says Pham. “It’s actually quite spicy, but with an incredible sweetness. I’ve put it on grilled cheese, on salads. I was just blown away by it.”
In December, Foxtrot announced it was merging with smaller, fellow Chicago-based brand Dom’s Kitchen & Market, so the 2023 Up and Comer winners will be similarly featured in Dom’s handful of stores.
But the impact of a win for a small brand can go far beyond Foxtrot. Balkan Bites, a New York-based brand specializing in frozen barek (savory phyllo pies), won in 2022 and is now available in 400 retail locations. Omsom was honored in 2021, and by 2022 had launched in Whole Foods. “The exposure gave us a lot of new customers who told us they found us in Foxtrot,” says Pham. “Beyond that, it was a great story for us as we thought about expanding to other retailers, as something we could point to as a case study.”
Foxtrot’s senior vice-president of marketing, Laura Gardner, says that’s part of her company’s goal. “Vanessa’s story is what we’re trying to create,” says Gardner. “We’re trying to break the band onto the scene and help create a stage that’s big enough, so these products can thrive.”
For Foxtrot, Up and Comers has become a calling card for its own brand, planting a flag in the world of CPG as a tastemaker with the ability to help people discover new and exciting snacks. “It’s become a really great rallying point for the company,” says LaVitola. “It’s fun, and a great annual reminder of why we exist in the first place.”