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Upper Lakes Rolls out the Red Carpet for Vendors and Customers

Upper Lake’s Mariah Berg in front of the timeline depicting when customers joined the “family.” This was taken early in the day before all the customers filled in their circles.

Upper Lakes Foods put the pedal to the metal for its spring food show May 2. Attendees had multiple chances to win a 1967 cherry-red Mustang. Do you know how difficult it was to find a 50-year-old Mustang in mint condition? asks marketing guru Mariah Berg. Fortunately, she adds, the person in charge of the nationwide search was a car buff. For every order attendees placed with sponsoring vendors, they received a ticket to place in the drawing. Other prizes included cool wheels as well: a red motorscooter and a retro bicycle. Winners won’t be announced until after the shipping date, Berg explains. Upper Lakes may be getting older, but it’s far from senile. Fair is fair. 

About 2,000 people were expected to make their way through the crowded aisles to sample new products and new twists on standards. The popular “garage sale” was in the back of the hall, where cooks and managers could stock up on smallwares and other essentials at great prices.

One of the more interesting conversations I had was with Cameron Campbell, Upper Lakes produce manager, who gave me a buzz button to sample. “Just take a small bite,” he warned. Fortunately I listened, because it only took a small amount to make my mouth go numb. The less attractive sister of a petal-less daisy is used as garnish in martinis and bloody Marys. 

Other hot products right now are tri-color vegetable dishes, including cauliflower in green, pale yellow and purple, and a trio of carrots that  all taste the same, but make orange passé. 

I only spotted two fun, but a bit salacious, signs: “Get Laid Locally,” from an egg producer based in Duluth and “Don’t be Topless,” touting the wisdom of adding Frank’s RedHot Pepper sauce.

The Wisconsin Restaurant Association had a booth, as did Minnesota’s. When asked what was the biggest issue facing his members, Wayne Nelson, membership rep for the Wisconsin group, said labor. Finding enough people to work in both the front and back of the house has been a struggle. To prove his point, he said the Harbor House, an upscale seafood restaurant in Milwaukee, had to advertise for help for the first time in its 17 years in business. On his drive to Duluth, he saw a sign at a national chain restaurant saying, “Now hiring 15-year-olds.” While it’s legal to hire 14- and 15-year-olds, the amount of regulation governing them in past has been prohibitive. Not anymore, he said.

What can the industry do? Raise kids who don’t want to grow up to live in their parents’ basement, he quipped. 

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