The 25 finalists in grocery giant H-E-B's Primo Picks Quest for Texas Best contest gathered at the Houston Food Bank on August 20 to learn their fate. They'd spent the past two days giving presentations to a panel of judges that included H-E-B executives, media members and San Antonio chef Jason Dady.
At stake was a $25,000 grand prize, a spot on grocery store shelves statewide and the title of Texas Best Primo Pick.
The winner, Nanette Watson's Frio Farm, represents the best of what Texas has to offer. Frio Farm's all-natural extracts are made by sixth-generation Texans in the tiny town of Concan (pop. 175) on the banks of the Frio River. Watson bounded to the stage to accept her prize, hugging sons Justin and Austin before the family posed for pictures with a trophy and a giant check.
"From a chef's perspective, it's all about flavor and taste," Dady said. Calling Watson's products "mind-blowing," he added that the flavors like vanilla, bourbon and cane sugar and coconut are "kind of a revelation in a way."
Watson attributed her success to her cold infusion process, which takes a minimum of three months and uses high-quality liquors like Jack Daniel's whiskey and Tito's Texas vodka. "We take our time," Watson said. "We go for flavor."
MaxFrut, from Arlington's Hector Alba, took home first prize and $20,000. The all-natural, gluten-free, 70-calorie frozen whole-fruit bars are a fresh alternative to high-calorie frozen desserts.
A $15,000 second prize went to Habibi Gourmet's line of dips (cilantro, jalapeno, green olive) from Mission. The $10,000 third runner-up was a sweet tea jam from Vela Farms in Victoria.
The Quest for Texas Best competition drew entries from 128 towns across the state. Through two qualifying rounds, H-E-B business development managers chose the 25 finalists for their taste and flavor, customer appeal, value, uniqueness, market potential and differentiation from current goods at most H-E-B stores.
Among the finalists were three others from the Dallas-Fort Worth area: Nancy Lalumia's Texas Toffee Queen in Kaufman, Robyn Schwartz's Fianco a Fianco in Fort Worth, and Michael French's Four Frenchie's Fabulous Nut Company in Carrollton.
Even the finalists who didn't win one of the cash prizes had good things to say about the experience. "H-E-B is an incredible company," said Michael Briggs, whose Briggs True line of sauces and seasonings was one of six finalists from the Houston area.
Despite spending two days tasting all the contestants' products, the judges and assembled finalists still found room to snack on a MaxFrut bar after the event ended. Eating when you should be full — or, in the case of Texas Monthly food editor Pat Sharpe, on the way to try a newly opened Houston restaurant?
That's when you know something's good.