A new chapter has begun for a regional food producers’ group that came together five years ago amid a larger jobs creation effort after the Great Recession.
The North Bay Food Industry Group this summer ended its contract for staffing with the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce. The group hired its own part-time executive and next is gearing up for an annual banquet that celebrates local food business pioneers.
Nearly 50 regional companies have come together to help each other grow, said Carolyn Stark, the group’s new executive director.
“I’d like to see it go to the next level,” Stark said of the group.
Sonoma County is considered a growing hub for craft foods and beverages. It was a sector that Stark targeted for growth five years ago when she was an executive leading the related job creation effort known as BEST, or Building Economic Success Together.
The Santa Rosa chamber began BEST in 2011. The efforts included bringing together food producers to consider how to help their sector grow.
Food business leaders soon formed three working groups to help companies by attracting talented workers, by tackling quality control issues and by improving marketing.
Those three working groups continue to hold well-attended, regular meetings, said Blair Kellison, CEO of Traditional Medicinals and the food groups’ chief financial officer and treasurer.
“It’s a great opportunity to learn from each other,” Kellison said of the working groups.
When funding ended for BEST in late 2016, a number of business leaders stepped in to keep the food group going as its own nonprofit with staff provided by the chamber. The founding members included Amy’s Kitchen, Clover Sonoma, Cowgirl Creamery, Guayaki, La Tortilla Factory, Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery, Straus Family Creamery and Traditional Medicinals.
The group eventually expanded to include Napa and Marin counties.
Meanwhile, Stark went on to serve a year as the top staff member for Sonoma County Vintners trade group. She returned this spring to assist the food group and took over this summer after a key chamber staff member departed for a new job.
Jonathan Coe, the chamber’s president/CEO, said the food group has shown its value over the years, and the time was right for them to hire their own staff.
“It really worked well, and I’m delighted they continue to move forward,” Coe said. On Aug. 10 he announced his retirement from the chamber by year-end.
The group will host its annual Pioneer Awards banquet Nov. 15 at SOMO Village.
You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @rdigit.