This is the final part of a two part interview with Debby Fortune of Fortune PR. Be sure to start reading with part 1. In this part, Debby talks about trends in food PR.
We’ve been doing this for 22 years and over the years, the changes we’ve seen and the economic waves that we’ve ridden have been really interesting to observe and look back on. I’ve experienced the growth in natural and organic foods, and that’s been very exciting. I’ve sort of shifted over the years from gourmet products to more organic and natural, and it works for me, personally. It’s also where the growth in the food industry is. It’s something I feel really good about.
We’ve ridden so many economic waves (particularly in the West), including the dot-com booms and busts that we’ve been through and the horror of 9/11. It definitely took its toll on the San Francisco Bay area as a tourist destination because of the economy and people being afraid to fly during 2001, 2002, and 2003. It took a while for things to recover, and that really hit the restaurant industry hard because San Francisco is such a big tourist destination.
It’s really bizarre - the organic and natural foods continue to grow, grow, grow and I see absolutely no slowdown, but the economy is definitely affecting the restaurant industry and my husband is feeling that a bit. It’s interesting - in the high-end sector or the really low-end or street food sector, it doesn’t seem to be affecting anything. But, it’s in the middle where it hurts the most. Who knows, you just never know how it’s going to go.
We’re just really grateful that we’ve been able to build a business that continues to grow and thrive and the natural and organic stuff is really my bread and butter.
Living in Berkeley, we’re about as crazy foodie lefty as you can get. We have two organic farmers' markets every week, one on Tuesday and one on Saturday, so we can do all of our shopping that way. They all come from local farms - it’s just a dream come true. We couldn’t have it much better.
The growth of a company like Amy’s Kitchen, which is one of my biggest clients, is really a mirror of the industry. It’s mirrored the growth of Whole Foods - the growth of awareness about organic foods. Amy’s is such a great company with such delicious foods. They’ve gone from a small company that probably had a very loyal vegetarian following to a company that everybody loves because their food tastes so great, it’s so good for you, and you can just about buy them everywhere now. It's been very exciting to see them grow.
What are some of the other clients that you’ve been able to see grow?
Another company that has been a really fun ride for me is Annie Chun’s. It’s an Asian food company. Annie is Korean and she started this company literally at the farmers' market in Marin County with about $500. She started making sauces about 12 years ago. She has now grown it into a hugely successful (all kinds of Asian foods) company. She, of course, has her Korean roots, but she also has Japanese-style sauces and Chinese-style sauces.
She does rices now. They are amazing. She has a sprouted brown rice that she brought in from Korea. Americans don’t even know about sprouted grains and this is a great introduction for Americans to try sprouted brown rice. It’s absolutely delicious. It’s very hard to make yourself. If you’ve ever tried to sprout something, it takes like 24 to 48 hours to do it. This is already made and it takes one minute in the microwave to warm up and it is amazingly good.
She also did some groundbreaking packaging with completely compostable, biodegradable bowls. Those instant soup bowl products are so popular and so many of them are in plastics. They are hard to get rid of, and filling up landfills. They’ve created a bowl and a tray that are made primarily of corn starch and they work just as well in the microwave. They are really only made for one use, but then you can chop them up and put them in your compost heap. She won an EPA award for that. I know they are looking at how much more of that they can do.
Watching them grow has been very exciting. They are in just about every grocery store in the U.S. now too - Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods. Growing from a tiny, little local California company to a nationally known brand is pretty exciting.
There have been other companies that have done that too - like Thai Kitchen. I think the growth is in the American awareness of Asian food, beyond just the Chinese food (which is sort of American-Chinese food that we all like) - just seeing people experience Korean, Japanese, Thai, and Vietnamese. There is certainly a huge amount of that in the West, but I am traveling a lot more around the U.S. and I’m seeing that everywhere you can get it.
Americans are becoming really adventurous eaters and with the growth of our Asian population here, there’s just a huge growth in awareness of delicious, wonderful, healthful Asian food. Korean food is one of the new frontiers for Americans. They are trying kim chi, Korean-style sauces, and Korean BBQ. It’s pretty exciting, too.
My specialty is working with small companies that have their name on the door - they are usually the name of the owner, like Amy’s or Annie Chun’s, and working with them as they grow into a big company. One of the first companies I ever worked with was a company called Aidells Sausage, which was Bruce Aidell. I worked for him for many years - helping him promote the business. He’s since sold it, but the brand is very strong and it’s in just about every Costco or grocery store around the country.
He’s one of the local Bay Area legendary foodies. He’s married to Nancy Oakes, another Bay Area legendary foodie. She owns Boulevard Restaurant in San Francisco. They are the ultimate food couple - that’s for sure.
People are passionate about what they do and we just help spread the word about what they do.
A little, tiny company that I’m working with right now is called Amano Chocolate. I have a feeling about this guy. He’s going to be really famous some day. His chocolate is extraordinary. He’s doing things with chocolate that nobody else is doing. The guy just does every single phase from knowing the farmers, sourcing the beans, traveling to Madagascar, South America, and Ghana, hand-picking the beans that he wants - building wonderful relationships with the farmers and then bringing it back and making it in his own little tiny plant. He’s customized all his equipment to make these single-origin unbelievable chocolate bars.
We think Art Pollard is a rising star in the chocolate world and it’s very exciting to see what’s happening with Amano Chocolate. Chocolate is like the new coffee. People went nuts about coffee and learned about how to grind their own beans at home and use coffee from all over the world. Now everyone is looking at chocolate in new ways (single origin flavors, different styles of making it) - it’s not your grandma’s Hershey's bar anymore. It’s all different. All these little chocolate shops have popped up over the last couple of years. Chocolate is a new big wave. [Related link: Art Pollard’s interview.]
Everywhere we go we like to eat the local food. I’ve turned my two sons into total foodies – it’s hilarious. I’ve never seen people so obsessed with food.
Have you ever done anything strange or unusual to promote a product?
I did more crazy, fun, wacko things before I had my company, when I worked for public television. We did a lot of events, so we did a lot of crazy, fun things around events. Those were my crazy days. We had C&H sugar sponsor an event. We hired this young artist to create dancing sugar cube costumes for tap dancers. They tap danced their way through to support this dessert delight event.
We had another Valentine’s event that had to do with sweets and chocolate and we had these amazing giant hearts made by a fabricator. They were just plain, then we sent the hearts out to celebrities who decorated them and sent them back to us. We auctioned them off - Julia Child did one, Huey Lewis and the News did one, and Mr. Rogers did one. We had these cool hearts hanging in the windows of a local department store and we auctioned them off at a benefit for the public TV station.
We did a lot more fun, creative stuff like that. With the food products, I don’t really need to do much crazy stuff because these delicious products - they’re really the news. It’s all about how good they taste and how healthful they’re made.
Do you have to personally really love a product in order to represent the company?
Oh my gosh, yes! Having done this now for 22 years, there were leaner times when we first started that I probably took on a few things that I didn’t really love. I learned my lesson. I’m very, very picky about who I will work with. It has to taste good and I have to really believe in it and feel that the writers that I’ve developed relationships with will like it. If you can’t really believe in it, I just can’t do it. I know if you work at a big agency, you can’t always be so picky. But, I have really reached that stage that if I can’t believe in it and it doesn’t taste good, I can’t do it.
It’s got to be a really good product I can really get behind. Even if it’s a little bit crazy, it still has to taste good or have some really good redeeming qualities: be fun, be innovative, be delicious -have some really good reason to be. I think we have a great selection of clients right now that all have wonderful aspects to them, whatever it may be - mostly natural and organic. But, there are some that are purely fun entertainment and deliciousness and that’s okay, too, because you have to have a little of that in your life.
If you could interview one person about food, who would it be?
People in the food world are so accessible that you could can call them up and talk to them. You really stumped me. I think it would have to be someone who is dead - someone really famous who’s dead. I think it would have to be Auguste Escoffier. He lived so long ago and is so famous. Here’s a crazy reason why. I just got invited to join this organization called Les Dames d' Escoffier. It’s really cool. I am very honored. They have local chapters. It's women in the culinary arts – they do really good work. I’m going to learn a lot more about it when I go to the induction ceremony at Boulevard Restaurant.
It’s named for, and in honor of, Auguste Escoffier. I’d like to meet and interview him and find out more about him since he died a long time ago. He died in the 1930’s, I think. He did some major stuff with French cooking.