Why San Francisco’s Coveted Good Food Awards Quietly Moved to Portland
Portland: meet the Good Food Awards. You may not know them. But you should, and you will. After 11 years in San Francisco, the humble, prestigious awards quietly relocated to Portland. Now, the “James Beards” of the artisan food world is ready to make noise with the 2023 Good Food Awards ceremony at Revolution Hall, April 21. The event is produced by the nonprofit Good Food Foundation. In attendance: 200 of the best food crafters in the country flying to town, plus dozens of Oregon finalists, all of whom met the stringent criteria to even submit an entry for an award.
The Good Food Awards celebrate food producers at the forefront of tasty, responsibly produced foods and drinks, most of them small and independent. Two thousand products were entered this year, judged on a combination of taste, sustainability, and social responsibility. After a blind tasting by 200 judges, 357 finalists made the cut. Winners in 18 categories will be revealed at the ceremony, among them makers of fine salamis, cheeses, honey, jams, tinned fish, and snacks.
“People dress up like the Oscars,” says cofounder Sarah Weiner. (Well, this is Portland, so we’ll see about that.) “The idea it to support people truly doing things right. Our mission is to shift wealth and status to people who are building a responsible world.”
Historically, Oregon has the second largest number of Good Food Award winners, after California. Among this state’s 61 finalists for 2023: Tiny Fish Co.’s smoked geoduck with black pepper from Portland chef Sara Hauman; Eugene's Camas Country Mill’s organic spelt fusilli pasta; Bend’s Seahorse Chocolate Trinidad Microlot Project 2021; Jacobsen Co. Portland Riverfront Raw Honey; and Mollala's Mt. Hope Farms spiced marionberry fruit spread, vying to win a second award for the jam.
Winners proudly slap the blue-and-white Good Food Award label on their product, which is how I discover some of my favorite things, including a dark milk chocolate black licorice bar made by Missouri’s Askinosie Chocolate.
“The awards matter because they’re entirely about quality,” says Ben Jacobsen, founder of Portland’s famed Jacobsen Salt Co., which also has a honey arm. “It’s not just taste, but the way it’s produced. To even meet the standards to submit is a mark of quality.”
A Good Food Award can also help open doors for new entrepreneurs like Jovani Milton Prince, owner of Beaverton’s The Cracker King, once a farmers market vendor. In 2020, Prince told Portland Monthly, “I already knew I had the best gluten-free crackers in the world, but people would walk by a Black product and they wouldn’t try it because a Black family was on the front.” Now, Prince has two Good Food Awards and a growing national presence on grocery shelves.
“It’s given us a reputation,” says Prince. “Just having the sticker on your packaging says ‘there’s something good inside that bag.’”
Most importantly, says Jacobsen, the organization has chosen Portland at a time when so many conventions and conferences are pulling back, as the city struggles with a rise in crime and houselessness. “Good Foods is diving in,” says Jacobsen. “It’s a testament to the fact that Portland is an innovation hub for great food around the country.”
Weiner, a product fanatic and one-time assistant to Berkeley’s legendary farm-to-table chef Alice Waters, thinks Portland is the place “where it’s happening,” as she puts it. To prove it, she even moved here.
In a wide-ranging interview, here’s what Weiner has to say about her adopted home and the future of food craft products.
Portland vs. San Francisco. Who’s the best food city? I defended Portland’s honor in a 2019 magazine smackdown. Now I have even more ammo: “Good Food Awards left San Francisco for Portland.” Help me make the argument.
Both cities have an amazing community of food crafters, but in Portland it’s like everyone is rooting for the little guys. People don’t realize how unusual it is for public universities to support small food crafters. Oregon State University’s Food Innovation Center is tops in the country. I’m blown away by the support we’ve received at every level of the Oregon Department of Agriculture. The Dairy and Nutrition Council helped unwrite costs for small, sustainable ice cream and cheesemakers to attend. I heard the Good Food Awards were mentioned during a legislative session. It's been eye opening. We did not experience anything like this from the public institutions in California. Plus, it’s really nice to go to a great coffee shop or bar and not hover like a stalker to score a seat.
What new trends are you seeing in the food crafting world?
I think seaweed is the next frontier. Healthy, sustainable, and abundant. Oregon is helping to lead the charge with companies like Hot Winter making seaweed hot sauce. It helps to have great local nonprofits like the Oregon Kelp Alliance supporting these efforts. On the cutting edge of bean-to-bar chocolate, I see Good Food Award winners like Bixby in Maine and Goodnow Farms in Massachusetts pressing their own cocoa butter out of cocoa beans. Until recently, no American crafter did this. The flavor difference, particularly in white chocolate bars, is immense.
Industries like cider have really taken off as well, and we’re beginning to see high quality gluten-free, artisan crackers. Locally, The Cracker King, does an amazing job, and I also love the cassava seed crackers stocked at Wellspent Market, from Cult Crackers in Berkeley. Also, grocers now carry traditional and totally new types of drinks never available in the US before. One of this year’s finalists, Superfrau, makes a bubbly, lightly sweet whey-based drink that upcycles the waste from the yogurt making process. It’s really good.
In a world of worries, what challenges are food crafters facing these days?
It has been a really hard time. Even some of the great ones are closing. One of our 2023 finalists, Portland’s Eliot’s Adult Nut Butters, is shutting down after the inventory runs out, despite great sales last year. Companies are being hit hard by supply chain disruption, inflation, and the agricultural impact of climate change. Floods, fires, and unseasonable cold (and heat) are wreaking havoc on certain crops, pushing makers to source creatively or even change up their product lines. During the pandemic, certain supplies became really hard to come by, including glass jars. Very small profit margins are getting smaller. It’s amazing what some great Portland retailers do for the food community, particularly family-owned grocers like Market of Choice and World Foods Portland.
What are you most excited to taste from this year’s finalists?
It’s truly hard to narrow down the list of fascinating products. Ashmead’s Kernel cider from Snow Capped Cider in Colorado? Pacific Coffee Research’s Ka’u varietal coffee, which rarely makes it off the island of Hawaii? Chio’s Sweet Pistachio Cream, a dessert spread born in an Oregon food cart? Or how about the Thailand 72-percent bar from River-Sea Chocolate in Virginia? I’m kind of cheating as I already tried this bar; it’s bright and complex and unlike any other chocolate I’ve eaten.
Which Good Food Award winners are in your pantry?
I eat Sibeiho’s sambal literally every day, in my morning bowl of beans topped with a six-minute egg, avocado, and lemon juice salsa. Usually, I dab the yolk with China Live’s chili crisp for an extra touch of super good umami. For snacks, I stock California’s Santé Nuts candied pecans and Huggins Family Farms Monkey Brittle, a finalist this year this year from Oregon. Joyce Attar, one of the second-generation owners of World Foods Portland, turned me onto the brittle and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever had, made from freeze-dried banana puree, chocked with raisins and pecans. Sounds weird, but it’s completely delicious and irresistible.
Where is your secret Portland shopping haunt?
My weekend treat is stopping by Southeast’s Cowbell Cheese shop, where the cheese mongers take impeccable care of the cheeses. It’s amazing how the same cheese can taste totally different depending on how it’s handled. Last week, I picked up perfectly creamy Queen Anne’s Lace from Tulip Tree Creamery, a Good Food Award winner from Indiana. I also get the Pio Tosini prosciutto from Northern Italy, which they slice in front of you. It’s some of the best prosciutto you will find anywhere.