KANSAS CITY, MO — When it comes to innovation, everyone knows to think outside the box. But in terms of networking, sometimes it’s hard to get outside of one’s own circle.

After the pandemic halted tradeshows, and video conferences became the new conference table, fledgling brands had to rethink how they made their connections. Networking communities, while still vital, had to be almost totally reimagined.

So, how does an emerging brand go about networking outside the circle when normal no longer exists?

“One thing I always tell people is that when you think a conversation might not be useful, take a few minutes and have it anyway,” said Stephanie Kriebel, CEO and co-founder of Plymouth Meeting, PA-based OMG! Pretzels. “You never know what knowledge that person might have or who they might be able to refer you to.”

While tradeshows are on the comeback trail, it’s important that smaller brands go at them surgically in order to maximize the benefit. Being a “small fish in a big pond” can quickly become chaotic and overwhelming. Without a good networking plan, it’s hard to create meaningful interactions that can yield valuable results.

“What I have found to be effective is to do almost mini-matchmaking conversations, where you’re a brand in a certain space,” suggested Kristin Keller, business development, brands for Mable, a virtual B2B marketplace. “You find other brands who are in that space, and maybe you co-brand. There’s leverage that can be had by equating your brand and grabbing some brand equity from others who have already succeeded in the same space.”

It’s an actionable version of the rising tide that floats all boats. Competition is healthy, especially when the market is healthy, because then everyone benefits.

“Obviously, everyone only has so much bandwidth to help the next up-and-comer, but when community is strong, successful brands remember what it was like when they were the new brand.”

Mable’s marketplace platform is designed to pool collections of brands in a combination of established and new, so it creates unique synergies for those brands to feed off one another.

Other ways brands can find new connections is to look up and down the supply chain. And upcycling’s circular economy is creating a natural haven for it.

“There are so many ways, especially in the baking category, to find ingredients that fit the Upcycled Foods’ classification for certification,” Keller said.

One easy point of entry is to look at local foodservice providers that are throwing out upcyclable foods. It’s an opportunity to partner locally while tapping into something that’s heavily on the radar today, especially for consumers who are conscious of sustainability.

“Upcycling is ‘of the moment’ right now, Keller said. “Because so many people are thinking about things like climate change, food waste and food insecurity. And all these things fit into upcycling opportunities. It’s a great time to reevaluate not only the products a brand is creating but also the supplier relationships that are getting them there.


“Obviously, everyone only has so much bandwidth to help the next up-and-comer, but when community is strong, successful brands remember what it was like when they were the new brand.” —Kristin Keller | business development, brands | Mable


That said, supplier relationships don’t have to be strictly transactional.

Kriebel started making OMG! Pretzels in her mother’s kitchen with her nearly a decade ago. When the product started to take off after two years, the pair moved into a commercial kitchen for about a year and before relocating into a local synagogue where they worked with a small team for about three years.

When the time came to scale up, Kriebel was considering manufacturing in-house. Through conversations with John Eschelman, the former director of pretzel and snack equipment sales for Reading Bakery systems, she was able to make an informed decision on whether it was best to invest in a co-manufacturer or in a facility of her own.

While she decided to forgo in-house manufacturing and partner with a co-manufacturer, Eschelman had educated Kriebel on the key factors of pretzel production, which allowed her to intelligently weigh the options and make the best choice for her business. Eshelman’s advice was not about making a sale but about helping a new pretzel maker navigate the ins and outs of the craft.

Openness to conversations with suppliers, even when it’s early on in the business, can be important learning opportunities for young brands and new entrants to the market.

“A lot of times, we think what we’re going to learn will be ‘good news,’” Kriebel said. “But if it doesn’t have the outcome you expect, you can still learn or understand what you want to get out of future conversations. So, if you’re trying to expand your co-manufacturing or distribution network, you have to ask yourself, ‘What have I learned in my current or past partnerships that I can apply here?’”

For Emerge Network CEO July Pryor, leading this network to support early-stage CPG founders is not only a business endeavor. It’s also a personal passion for creating meaningful connections among people and brands.

“I have experienced firsthand what it’s like growing a business, and it’s hard — and hard to do alone,” Pryor said. “But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile.  I’ve really been able to experience for myself all the different facets that come with being a small business owner and an entrepreneur. What I’ve come to realize in my own journey — and what I’ve seen time and again with the brands in the Emerge network — is that we all need help.”

Because Emerge works with CPG brands across industries, there are endless opportunities to cross-pollinate business and creative ideas from one industry to another.

“From my experience, one thing people from outside an industry can bring is thinking more globally about the impact that CPG products can have on the planet,” Pryor said. “We can have an impact together, as a society, through developing and purchasing products that ultimately support something bigger than ourselves. There are global perspectives that go beyond just food.”

Emerge strategically connects founders with mentors, partners or even potential investors for highly targeted networking opportunities. For Pryor, networking is defined by alignment.

“I like to say it’s meaningful connection, because for me, it’s about making highly relevant, highly aligned connections that support both parties with their own interests and their own goals,” Pryor said. “It’s about mutual interests being met through real connection.”

Whether those connections are made at a tradeshow booth, in a classroom or even a local vendor, the best thing food entrepreneurs can do to propel themselves forward is sharpen the focus while keeping an open mind to a variety of networking possibilities.