You may or may not know, but Kinnikinnick has been around since 1991. Our family has been involved since 1997. An awful lot has changed in those years, especially in the last 5 years or so. Availability, awareness and quality have all made incredible progress. It has also meant the gluten free industry has changed greatly, moving from what were mostly family run, mom and pop operations (usually with at least one celiac in the family), to corporate owners. The sense of community among manufacturers has also been lost to a large extent. In the early days, even though we were competitors, the sense was that "we were all in this together". For the most part that has been lost with the corporatization of the industry. If I'm to be honest, it's not as fun as it used to be.
Back in the early days, growing awareness about Kinnikinnick and our products meant many trips across Canada and the US. In the late 90's, part of my job, was traveling to the US, showing off our products to support groups. Now it's important to remember that the support groups of the late 90's were very much different than what they are today. Awareness in many areas was practically non-existent and group numbers were most often 30 people or less.
Aside from size, the difference between then and now was that these
weren't "vendor fairs" or anything remotely like that. First I would try
to find a support group in the general area I was going to be. This was in the very early days of "the web", before Google (Anyone remember AltaVista?) so finding things like support group contacts was much more difficult. My best tool was the Celiac ListServ (which still exists
If I could find a phone number or email contact (not always a given), I
would contact the group and try to set up a time to come present to the group. These presentations involved doing a talk, a bit of QandA and then, everyone's favourite part, sampling of our products. For the most part, this contact was the first time most people had ever heard of Kinnikinnick, let alone tasted our products. I can even take some credit for getting some support groups started. In 1999 or 2000, I contacted someone in Stanford, CA and asked to come present to the support group. The person I talked to said that their group had dissolved due to lack of interest, but she said that she'd try to get a few people to come out. I met in a conference room at Stanford with about 25 people. A couple of years later, the Stanford Celiac conference had over 400 people attend.
In 1999 or 2000, I did an epic trip starting in New York and looping through New Jersey, Virginia, North & South Carolina, Georgia and finishing up across the full length of Tennessee, with stops in Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville. I did this all in a span of just over 3 weeks, with meetings almost every night in a different city. I put well over 3000 miles on the rental car. Thank goodness for unlimited mileage. If memory serves, the largest meeting was about 100 people in Raleigh, North Carolina at a hospital conference room. The smallest was to a group of 7 people in the dining room of a house in Memphis.
As owners, we still believe that it is important to get out to support group events to meet with customers and get feedback and new product ideas. We go to 15-20 shows a year. This past weekend, I was in Knoxville, TN for the Celi-Act Gluten Free Vendor Fair. I'd say they had well over 2500 people attend between 10am and 4pm. At about 10:30 in the morning, just after the doors opened, I had a reminder of why we started this in the first place. A woman came up to our table and said,
"I just wanted to let you know that Kinnikinnick was the first gluten free food my daughter ate. I came to a presentation your company made in the late 90's with my 3 year old daughter, who had just been diagnosed with Celiac. She had her first donut that day. After she tried it, she looked up at me and said (in her 3 year old voice) 'I love donuts!'
She then pointed to the young woman of about 15 standing next to her and said, "This is my daughter. Kinnikinnick is still our favourite company after all these years."
What she didn't realize was that I was the one who had served that little girl the piece of donut, way back then. What I didn't realize was that I remembered that little girl.
In the 17 years I've been doing this, I've seen an awful lot of change, and not all for the better, but one thing never changes. There is no greater satisfaction than having something you make bring a bit of joy into someone's life.
PS. If you were at some of those early meetings, I'd love to hear from you in the comments.