by Risa Nye
Entering the world of the Specialty Food Association’s Fancy Food Show, held at San Francisco’s Moscone Center, felt like stepping through Alice’s looking glass into a land where snacks and chocolate are coins of the realm. The sight of 215,000 square feet of exhibition space—including small kitchen set-ups, large displays, booths, and samples, samples everywhere— threatened to throw me into a state of sensory overload.
Fortunately, I ran into Les Sloane—a friend, food show veteran, and brand promoter for Barry Callebaut (manufacturer of high quality cocoa and chocolate products). I followed her lead through the gauntlet of cheese, salami, gelato, sauces, spices, olive oil, bacon, chips, cookies and so much more. The sultans of snacks and the giants of jerky stood side by side, next to gluten-free offerings in every possible category. My notes may be smeared with jam and oil residue, but I am happy to share my experiences over the three-day food extravaganza, where I heard a number of success stories, and met some up-and-comers who have pinned their hopes on having the next big thing in the snack/cookie/ketchup universe
There was more than a bit of a Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory vibe at the show. Brightly-hued candy dominated the displays in both North and South Halls. After two-and-a-half days of walking the aisles, I think candy wins for taking up the most real estate. According to the show’s official press release, there were “over 80,000 examples of the latest chocolate, cheese, olive oil, granolas, salsa and charcuterie from across the U.S. and 30 countries, enough to fill four football fields.” In addition to food, one could also sample a variety of beverages and get a look at ways to package the goods in fancy boxes and bags.
Some of the baked goods (cupcakes, petit fours, specialty items decorated with butterflies and sparkly things) were displayed behind glass, or with “for display only” signs, warding off the myriad hordes of moochers in the aisles. Other folks were happy to hand over slices of salumi, smoked salmon, bacon, and sausage. Jam, honey, peanut and other nut butters spread on crackers—so easy to pop in your mouth as you snake your way through the aisles. The truffles, in all their dark, pungent glory, were under heavy guard.
How many different kinds of salt, flavored water, or barbecue sauce can there be? The answer: tons.
In one hall, the displays took on more of an “It’s a Small World” flavor: displays of food from France, Italy, Japan, Korea, Greece, and England, among others, made it possible to take a small trip around the world in just a few steps while sampling countless types of cheese. Some of the vendors hollowed out a huge hunk of cheese and filled it with smaller cubes of cheese: a cheese basket made of cheese. What with cold and flu season in full swing these days, there were fewer “reach in and grab” opportunities, with many toothpicks available. Double dipping was strongly discouraged, as it should be.
Les wisely advised me to start with savory and then move on to sweet, but by then I’d already had a couple of caramels and a piece of chocolate truffle. After a while, all sense of propriety goes out the window, and you find yourself chasing a taste of lemon gelato with a piece of bacon or brisket and washing it down with herbal tea made from ginger and turmeric. It’s important to pace yourself, especially when panini gelato are being made right in front of you and it would be a shame not to have a taste, even if you’ve been trying to stay on the straight and narrow with the savory elements for the last two aisles. Alas, I couldn’t resist the chance to skewer a marshmallow and toast it over a can of Sterno.
I was at the show as an observer—as opposed to the distributors, wholesalers, brokers, manufacturers, exhibitors, importers, etc. who attend to do business and get some traction in the marketplace. Some well-known brands took up a lot of space on the floor, while the mom and pop businesses had just enough display space for some business cards and a few plates of samples. In a seemingly overcrowded market for chips, cookies, sauces and seasonings, there always seems to be room for more. Products featuring creative uses for kale, and those many gluten-free items that one suspects would not have any use for gluten in the first place, stood shoulder to shoulder with big-time purveyors of crackers and chips that make no claims about being a healthy alternative to anything.
Salt. So many types of salt. And popcorn, mustard, ketchups, seasonings combined for you already, pickles, and every permutation of chocolate. In a world where it’s important to have a brand that impresses and a product that tickles the taste buds of the masses, it’s no surprise that the competition is so vast. And of course, everyone wanted to know what the hot, new trends are going to be. The suspense ended when the Specialty Food Association revealed the trend experts’ top picks. Without revealing all the details, let me sum up what the experts predict will be the top five trends to appear on your grocers’ shelves in the year to come:
- Cheese, as a flavoring in many forms (popcorn, ice cream, olive oil)
- Breakfast served all day (milk chocolate, tea with cinnamon, products featuring bacon)
- Cruciferous chips and other products using broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower
- Vanilla beans: as flavoring in cheese, ice cream, shortbread, etc.
(For specific products in each category, check the Specialty Foods link.)
Finally, in the good news/bad news department: Kale is still a contender.
There are 80,000 stories in the Fancy Food Show. Next time, I’ll tell a few of them.
Risa Nye lives in Oakland. Her articles and essays have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Monthly, Hippocampus magazine, and several anthologies. She writes about cocktails as Ms. Barstool for Nosh at berkeleyside.com and about other things at risanye.com.