Each time she exhibits at a trade show, Sharon Tracy, co-founder of Port Washington-based A Sprinkle and a Dash, makes more than 1,000 Belgian chocolate souffles for attendees to sample.

Those souffles represent the company's signature product, My Cup Of Cake, a decadent dessert that can be baked in a mug in the microwave in under three minutes.

Having samples on hand for buyers to taste has proved a successful strategy in convincing retailers to carry the product, now sold in more than 150 locations nationally.

In fact, the company has snagged 70 percent of its customers at trade shows, but not without significant investment.

Attending just one show costs about $10,000, Tracy says. "It costs $2,500 just to ship out the product and booth to our San Francisco show."

The firm is just scratching the surface with the amount of business it could generate from trade shows, she says, because economics limit it to two shows a year -- the Specialty Food Association's Fancy Food shows in Manhattan and San Francisco.

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Reaching a wider audience

With more capital to exhibit at shows in other cities, such as Chicago and Atlanta, Tracy says the company could potentially double revenue.

My Cup of Cake, which retails for $22.95, includes a 16-ounce ceramic mug and mix to make the souffle. In addition to Belgian chocolate, it comes in salted caramel and gluten-free Belgian chocolate. The kits are packed and shipped by The Arc of Madison Cortland in upstate Oneida, which employs people with developmental disabilities.

"You pick up an entirely different group of people doing a different trade show," notes Peter Waters, a former Hicksville chocolatier who co-founded the company with Tracy in 2011.

Still, given the cost of attending, companies like A Sprinkle And A Dash need to have a good strategy in place when choosing and exhibiting at these venues.

"They don't want to be pumping huge amounts of money into those shows that may not necessarily pay off for them," says Susan Friedmann, aka The Tradeshow Coach, who provides trade show coaching and training. "They have to decide who they want to go after."

Trade shows can certainly pay off, but sometimes the return on investment isn't immediate, she explains. "It can take a few shows to get noticed," says Friedmann, author of "Meeting & Event Planning For Dummies" (Wiley, $21.99).

And you have to work at getting buyers to your booth, she notes. "It's coming up with something creative that will attract the buyers' attention."

Tracy and Waters should give themselves at least six months to do promotion in advance of a show, advises John A. Hill, president of East Northport-based JAH & Associates Inc., a trade show coach and business consultant. For instance, they can get a mailing list of various specialty food retailers and send them save-the-date postcards, he suggests.

Exhibitors can also get a list of attendees at past shows and inquire about this year's attendees, he notes. This can help not just with reaching out to buyers, but also saving on shipping costs, says Hill, noting they might find other local exhibitors attending the same show and share shipping costs.

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Tracy says she does outreach before each show, including reaching out to previous buyers and informing them of her booth number.

Looking for more funding

"There's a real science to this, much more than people understand," says Waters, who now resides in South Carolina and works on new product development.

Their booth has attracted companies such as Dylan's Candy Bar and Free People. And this past February they caught the eye of a big-box retailer that will put them in 150 more stores this fall, says Tracy, who's seeking woman-owned business certification.

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To help fund their expansion, they recently competed for a FedEx small-business grant. They were among the finalists but didn't win. They're now considering a Kickstarter campaign, says Tracy, noting they'd look to raise $50,000-plus.

"Every year we've garnered more customers," says Tracy. "We just need more exposure to get to the next level."