Celebrating the sweet smell of success at the Illinois Products Expo

When people think about Illinois agriculture, they picture fields lined with rows of corn and soybeans, and cattle, pigs and chickens. They don’t understand how those raw products are transformed into food and other agriproducts, or appreciate the effort it takes to market them.

Illinois leads the nation in food processing, and food processing is one of our state’s top manufacturing activities. In 2015, Illinois’ food processing industry represented $165 million in sales, and the state’s 2,636 food processing companies employed more than 91,000 workers.

Here are some additional impressive Illinois agricultural rankings:

  • First in the nation in processed food sales
  • Second in the nation in corn and soybean production
  • Third in the nation for the number of farmers’ markets
  • Fourth in the nation for agricultural exports
  • Fifth in the nation for processed food exports.

The Illinois Department of Agriculture helps support Illinois-based agribusinesses by providing marketing, promotional and educational programs and services, in-state, across the country, and internationally.

Helping small-and medium-sized agribusinesses build, grow and expand is an important focus of the agency. The annual Illinois Products Expo, an important aspect of the department, serves as a launching pad for many of these businesses, and helps educate the public about Illinois agriproducts.

The 19th Illinois Products Expo will be held March 4-5 at the Orr Building on the Illinois State Fairgrounds, Springfield. Expo hours will run 10:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. on the fourth, and 10:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m. on the fifth.

Bring your appetite because you’ll be tempted by the many food products available to smell, sample and purchase. “We think the Illinois Products Expo is the first step for a company being able to promote their product to a consumer audience and make that first step into retail sales,” explains Jim Mackey, the Department of Ag’s agricultural marketing representative. “The Illinois Products Expo is a consumer event. We promote it, and we get a regional audience around Springfield to come to it.”

Grocery executives visit with a representative from Jones Boys Market at the Illinois Products Expo. Photo courtesy of the Illinois Department of Agriculture.

The expo is well-attended with 5,000-6,000 consumers from central and northern Illinois, providing each exhibitor great exposure. Many show attendees look forward to returning each year to re-sample their favorite products, meet new vendors and try their products. For just five dollars’ admission, attendees can eat their way through the expo (children under 10 are free). Mackey says, “Hopefully, the attendees will help drive and build a demand for that product and maybe get some pull through when they ask where they can buy it.”

Last year more than 70 merchants exhibited at the expo, which included about a dozen wine vendors in the Illinois Wine Garden. Wine can be sampled, and purchased by the glass, or bottle. Although food products are the expo’s primary focus, some vendors offer non-food agriproducts such as candles, soaps and lotions, dog treats and lip balm.

Grocers and other retail buyers are invited to attend early Saturday morning before the expo floor opens. That allows them a quieter time to visit with the vendors and see their products. The goal is for vendors to make some connections that will help them take that next step into distribution and get their products out to a retail market.

State Representative Terri Bryant honors Joe Wilkerson of Uncle Joe’s Sauces, Ina, with a certificate from the Illinois House of Representatives for taking the title of Illinois Champion at the National BBQ Sauce Competition, sponsored by the Illinois Barbecue Society. From left are Rep. Bryant, Joe Wilkerson (Uncle Joe’s Restaurant, and nephew of Uncle Joe) and Uncle Joe Wilkerson (Uncle Joe’s Sauces). Photo courtesy of Rep. Bryant’s office.

Joe Wilkerson, owner of Uncle Joe’s Sauces, in Ina, has been cooking up lip-smacking sauces for the past nine years. Wilkerson sought help from the Department of Agriculture early on, and has counted on assistance from agency representatives as his business has quickly expanded. He says the Illinois Products Expo helped kick-start his company. He advises, “First, if you’re trying to get a product out, the Illinois Products Expo is the best outlet for testing your market. You’ll find out if you’ll sell it, or not – if your product is truly good. And second, be there to meet the buyers that first morning.”

Uncle Joe’s markets five barbecue sauces, a pasta sauce and a dry rub. The company’s products are gluten-and Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)-free, and some are low in sodium. They now line shelves in more than 600 stores in 11 states, including chains such as Schnucks, Kroger, Hy-Vee, Rural King and Walmart. And there have been accolades along the way. Wilkerson says proudly, “This past spring we got State of Illinois Grand Champion with our extra hot sauce from the Illinois Barbecue Society, and even got recognized by the House of Representatives in Springfield.”

Wilkerson has partnered with neighboring Pheasant Hollow Winery to create Uncle Joe’s Red Sauce (pasta sauce), using the winery’s Black and Blue table wine and Uncle Joe’s Rub Down, (all-purpose dry rub). So, it’s doubly good with two Illinois agribusinesses cooperatively working to create a product. And, Uncle Joe’s Restaurant, which shares the property with its production facility in Ina, is yet another success story. Except for a few items, everything served by the restaurant is made in-house. Wilkerson is a strong supporter of other Illinois-based food purveyors, and devotes a shelf in his restaurant for around 15 of his favorites.

Meeting demand is keeping Wilkerson and his team hopping, but he has plenty of ideas for further business expansion. For more information about Uncle Joe’s products and restaurant, visit www.eatunclejoes.com.

Although the Department of Ag has played a part in Uncle Joe’s success and could take some credit, they prefer to work under the radar. Mackey says, “It’s still up to the individual and the company, and what they want to do. We provide connections and some expertise, but honestly this is on the companies. It’s nice when you see those success stories. We’ve got those we hand-held from start-ups that are now big exporters that have outgrown our services. That is our purpose.”

Learn more about these Department of Ag’s business assistance programs and services at: www.agr.state.il.us/business-assistance.

  • Agribusiness tours
  • Directories/Resources
  • Education
  • Exporting Assistance
  • Illinois Farm Programs
  • Logo programs
  • Trade shows/Product expos

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