If I wanted to do so, I could go every few months to a food show. These are expos held in municipal convention centers, generally in New York or Chicago or San Francisco. They can be very big like the show put on each May by the National Restaurant Association. Or they can be specialized like the Natural Foods Expo. Or they can be technical like the one held every three years by the Retail Bakers Association.
Among the biggest of them are the fancy food shows held in June at the Javits Convention Center in New York and in January at the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco. They are really something to behold. They are the expos of the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade.
Specialty foods are packaged foods, processed foods, foods ready for sale. They are typically in jars or bags or bottles although cheeses and processed meats and fish are included in the category.
The producers of those foods, large and small, pay a great deal to display their wares twice a year in booths and on tables and hope they connect with people like us small retailers – although the large guys like Whole Foods attend these expos prowl the halls in great numbers hoping that they will discover something new.
Everyone is excited when he attends the first time. You walk from booth to booth and if you are undisciplined you can sample a newly imported olive oil from Sicily, then a fruit soda and an espresso candy, followed by a peanut or pistatio butter followed by a Stilton and a morsel of chocolate.
If you are only modestly disciplined, you skip the new inventions of the hyper-creative – grape jelly potato chips and chocolate covered fried bees.
If you are semi-disciplined, you also skip the jelly beans and soft drinks.
If you are a bit more disciplined you taste only those chocolates or cheeses that you think might be special.
If you are highly disciplined you taste only what you are seriously interested in buying for your store.
The degree of discipline is determined not, as you might imagine, by strength of character or good taste but solely by frequency of attendance.
I have gone to these shows perhaps ten times over the past 25 years and I have just returned from the one in San Francisco.
I flew out on Saturday and attended the show on Sunday and Monday. Then I flew back on Tuesday morning.
The winter show is overwhelming, (the summer show even more so). I walked the floor for hours and hours trying hard to focus on the thousands of foods being displayed. You cannot think of any food, any flavor that hasn’t been invented by someone who hopes we will buy his creation and offer it for sale.
There are themes, however – fads, I would say, or would-be fads. Bacon potato chips, bacon popcorn, and bacon candy. Peanut butter flavored with jam, with onion, and of course with bacon.
I skip all that and I skip all the thousands of chocolates being offered but I look for new products (or old ones) that appeal to my tastes.
Sometimes I stopped to marvel at the sheer ingenuity (or perhaps desperation). Do any of you want Bread Furst to make the Belgian chocolate chunk pretzel challah I saw at the show?
I believe in tradition – you know that. I love peanut butter but I want it to be composed of very well-roasted peanuts and salt, nothing else, no added sugar or oil and certainly no bacon.
There are other products I don’t like at all like soft drinks; but I still taste ginger beers looking for one that is particularly vibrant and I taste the high-class sodas from Fever Tree and Q hoping to find some soft drinks that won’t embarrass me.
I don’t expect to find much. I try hard to focus as I walk the halls. I drink every espresso I can put my hands on (and there is plenty) trying to keep my focus sharp. On occasion that focus is rewarded. I am going to buy and have for you Retrovo’s organic apple balsamic vinegar that I tasted. It was good enough to drink.
And I allow myself fantasies about using things I see: Prunes. Of course. Why are we not making prune Danish?
Chocolate lollypops to stir hot milk. That’s a good idea. Should we make very fine chocolate lollypops for Valentine’s Day?
Tulip shaped paper muffin cups. When are we going to start making muffins with tops?
Kombucha. Is that something we should be selling? How would I choose one? I don’t even know what it is.
Serrano jamon negra. Ham nearly as expensive as white truffles that seems worth its price when a tiny slice is in my mouth. Indeed, shouldn’t I leave the booth, then circle back to taste it again? But it would be dumb to risk buying one. How many Bread Furst customers will buy it?
The show is stimulating. The show is a useful diversion. At home again I will order a few new products from a few of the vendor who displayed. And I will give in, rise above principled and start selling potato chips.
Now back to work.