Are Industry Competitions Worth the Trouble?
When I tried to find out just how many food competitions are held within a year, there were so many that it couldn’t be numbered within the time frame I had to research this article. But I can tell you that they are EVERYWHERE, from county fairs to industry trade shows to galas put on by industry nonprofit foundations across the globe. Some are open to the public where anyone can participate, and others are private affairs that require an invitation to compete. In the end, all competitions share the same goal: to crown a winner.
PreGel has proudly sponsored the Gelato Festival competitions since 2017, and before that, the Gelato World Tour in 2016. These competitions attracted some of the most talented and creative gelato artisans from almost every country and stoked an intense gelato craving across the world… But is it even worth the trouble to participate as a competitor when you’re not guaranteed to win?
In a word, YES!
I caught up with three competitors from Gelato Festival who gave me the run down on the biggest benefits they’ve experienced since taking the leap: Gelato Festival America Champion, Mike Guerriero; two-time Gelato Festival America silver medalist, Ezequiel Gomez Garofalo; and bronze medal and Technical Jury Special Mention winner, Noel Knecht.
- A tasteful introduction:
“Before the competition, it was hard for our shops to market our products to the customers that are used to ordering classic American ice cream,” says Guerriero, who further explained that competing in the competition gave him the opportunity to educate his customers, who are used to ordering ice cream, on the history and culture of Italian gelato. “Now we’re serving our gelato, not just to the Europeans or travel savvy who’re already knowledgeable about gelato, but to our customers who want to branch out from the norm and try something new just because it’s award-winning.”
Knecht is taking full advantage of this opportunity to practice her pitch for when the doors to her business are finally open. For her, it’s not just the scoop of gelato that brings smiles to the faces of those who eat her gelato, it’s also the informative and friendly conversations she has with each customer that helps them to understand what Italian gelato is and what sets it apart from classic America ice cream. “I naturally love to teach. Seeing people truly process and understand the difference in texture, mouthfeel, and flavor between ice cream and gelato is exciting. Competing has been great practice for me, as I prepare to educate my customers back home in my community about this amazing dessert and culture,” Knecht explained.
“To make gelato is my passion and lifestyle,” says Garafalo. “Competing in Gelato Festival meant that I got to take part in the opportunity to educate people in America about the culture of gelato and to share my passion to a larger community of people,” he added.
- The stamp of approval:
Even though consumers don’t explicitly ask for it, participating in competitions (not just winning them) provides an official stamp of approval for the artisan’s that made them. American Gelato Festival champion, Guerriero, says “Our gelato was always good, but winning Gelato Festival indicates to our customers that the gelato we make is authentic, delicious, and something they’d likely experience if they were to visit Italy.”
“My customers love that I’ve placed in the top three at every Festival I’ve competed in,” says Garafalo, who actively includes his customers in the development of the flavor he chooses to compete with. “To them it means that when they eat our gelato, it’s some of the best there is in the country,” Garafalo added.
Knecht says, “Trading my career as a mid- to high-level executive for one of the largest retail brands in the U.S. to being a budding gelato artisan was a pretty tough decision. But after obtaining third place at Gelato Festival and the Technical Jury’s mention twice, I’m taking it as validation that my decision was the right one and that I have what it takes to make it in this industry. This competition has been a great launchpad for my business, too.”
- It’s about the relationships:
In regard to peer networking, Garafalo stated, “I wanted to learn from other chefs. I know my style and our flavors are loved by my customers [in South Florida], but I wanted to see what other artisans are doing with their techniques, their flavors, their decorations for their markets and compare it to my own.” Discovering other flavors that are popular in regions you are not familiar with can educate your palate and help you to imagine unique flavor and texture pairings that you would not have considered had you not encountered it firsthand. To this sentiment, Garafalo adds, “I know I became a better chef because of my experiences with these chefs.”
Gueirrero relayed that one of the biggest benefits of his participating in an industry competition was the relationships gained with other artisans, trade experts, and industry suppliers. “Before competing at Gelato Festival, the only connection I had to the industry was through the PreGel YouTube videos I’d watched online to learn how to decorate my pans of gelato. When I was competing I got to be in the room with all of these amazing experts and passionate people, and experience their skills first hand.”
Knecht expressed her perspective about professional relationship-building, saying, “In my area, no one else is doing what I’m trying to do, so competing in Gelato Festival has allowed me to meet other artisans with the same level of passion as me, who I can bounce ideas off of as I open my business. In Italy, you have a huge community of gelato artisans, but here in the U.S., we’re a small group, so it was important for me to make sure I took advantage of these few opportunities that I’m presented with to expand my network and build relationships in the industry.”
Have these recounts of Gelato Festival competitors tempted you into participating on a regional, national, or even an international stage within your industry? If so, you’re probably wondering how you’re supposed to prepare for a competition. Well, I was pondering the same question, and luckily all three award-winning gelato artisans shared what they think are the most important steps to take when preparing to compete.
Knecht: Do your Research!
“I always start at where, when, and who,” says Noel. “I research which fruits are distinctly local to the actual competition, and choose the ones that are in season at the time of the event. Catering to the palates of the people who will judge your flavor is very important, as it makes the technical judges, as well as the general public, feel a sense of ownership and familiarity within the flavor, and persuades them to vote for the one that is sentimental or nostalgic to them. I also try to partner with at least one local business. This is so that the community can see a representation of themselves on the stage, and local businesses can also benefit from exposure at the event that is hosted in their town as well.”
Garafalo: Take time to test your flavor.
“I begin to formulate my flavor at least two months in advance of the competition. That way I am able to find the perfect ingredients and test them with friends, family, and customers. Every flavor that I have featured in my competitions were the ones that were chosen by my community. That way, I know that I am bringing the best flavor to win.
Gueirrero: Go in with a winning attitude.
“I didn’t know I would gain all of those other amazing benefits that came with competing at Gelato Festival. “I did, however, surround myself with supportive family and friends who helped me believe in myself. In the end, I went into Gelato Festival knowing that I have what it takes to win. I went in with one goal, and I would work as hard as I had to in order to gain the title of Gelato Champion.”
Now, these words of wisdom don’t only apply to gelato competitions. No matter what your area of expertise is, participating in competitions is a great marketing tool that can help your business, boost your confidence, and sharpen your skills as a chef.
Other notable takeaways to remember as you prepare for competitions:
- Read the rules! Don’t just skim them. Judges and moderators don’t take them lightly, and neither should you.
- Tell everyone! Use social media to broadcast your intentions and gain support from your community.
- Put your best foot forward! Use your own famous recipe that’s loved by all your clientele, and that can’t be easily imitated.
Now, that you’re prepared with the know-how of preparing for competitions and the benefits of why it could be good for business, keep an eye out for the upcoming 2020 competitions that can help take your brand to the next level.