West Coast Fancy Food Show Recap

with Gretchen Morfogen, Culinary Writer

January is a perfect time of year to leave the cold snowy Midwest and participate in San Francisco’s annual National Association for the Specialty Food Trade Show (NASFTS). A place where food manufacturers, brokers, distributors, retailers, chefs, merchants, foodies, etc. gather under one roof for a weekend of foodie frivolity! Picture a carnival of smells, tastes, sounds, visuals, and textures regarding all things food. Not just any food, but a small niche sector identified as the specialty goods market share. Cheese, chocolate, sauces, salts, crackers and crostini, beverages, confections, conventional, organic, traditional, new, standard and avant garde- everything you can imagine as well as the unimaginable.

There was a small representation of “celebrity chefs” that were in house putting on a show for the attendees who are interested in that aspect of the industry, self promoting a line of cookware, sauces, or other products designed to sell due to their television popularity. There has always been a presence of them at the show but like the fickle world of entertainment, the faces and personalities change frequently.

This year’s show was exceptionally well attended considering the horrific state of the national economy. It is a perfect venue for businesses to expand, remain in the consumer’s cognizance and new entrepreneurs to break out of the small markets and blast off into national retail-ville! The aisles were so packed with people eager to sample, smell, touch, and embrace the foods that define the specialty market snapshot of here and now.

Having attended many shows in the past 20 or so years – I have a perspective of curiosity and enthusiasm for the new businesses that have taken the risk to enter into business in such a weak economy. They are embarking on a journey of the epic unknown and I respect the tenacity it must take to expose your ideas to a public arena like the food show. That being said, it also saddens me to not see businesses that have been there in previous years and are no longer in business, got bought out by the big guys or got buried in the foodie graveyard of past trends that fizzled out.
Many large distributors have been hit hard by the economy and a domino effect has affected many smaller businesses in the process. Stores going out of business cannot pay their vendors and the distributors cannot pay their manufacturers and so on until doors close on so many livelihoods. Although this sounds dismal, this business is continually bouncing back and reinventing itself.
Some of the great items and trends I noticed at this years show were a movement of eco-friendly packaging like never before, simplicity in concept and presentation, focus on the bread and butter sales instead of esotery, and support of foods that have a mission- a purpose other than strictly commerce.

Let’s get down to specifics. Ever heard of or seen a finger lime? It was the most fantastic thing I’ve seen or tasted at the shows in years! A micro citrus the size of a small pinkie finger packed with caviar like pulp when squeezed and explosive lime tang flavor I can imagine on fish, salad, white meat dishes, brightening ethnic sauces, garnishing a beverage, or dessert. They’re indigenous to Australia but a grower in Northern California has a grove of them working their magic on the peninsula. Their demand outweighs the supply – for now- an exciting place to be in a market of stagnation and unoriginality.

Yuzu fruit is on the rise and I won’t say its going to push acai out of the way but its very different, tasty, approachable and plentiful. A hybrid of the sour mandarin and Ichang papeda the tart, floral fruit is used in a variety of ways depending on the ethnicity of the user; Koreans use it as herbal remedy tea and marmalade, Japanese use the rind as a seasoning, vinegars, fermented and distilled beverages and syrup, Dutch use it to flavor beer. Although it originated in China it is a frost hardy citrus embraced and cultivated widely in Japan. Many interesting products are making their way to the U.S. made with yuzu. St. Louis’ very own Bissinger’s has created a yuzu and ginger gummy panda that was premiered at this year’s show. Bright tart flavor and subtle ginger finish that leaves a pleasant lingering on the palate.

I’ve never had much of a sweet tooth but a small baker in the foothills of the Sierras is making not only the best cookies I’ve had in a long time but they’re gluten free! The texture, flavor and consistency blows away anything I have had up to this point. She’s on to something and I think we’ll see her products across the country in a short time. She’s gearing up for local production at the moment but I am hoping she gets some benefactors to help her growth.

A farmer near Monterey is growing unbelievable marcona almonds (the ones we’re currently paying up to $16 per pound from Spain) and their orchards are maturing for mass production. Same group is growing San Marzano tomatoes that they flash freeze whole and ship for food service and retail environs. The sauce was incredible. Aromatic and tasted like fresh tomatoes. Their treviso and other hardy Italian greens were so exciting to see and taste- it makes me yearn for the growing season even more!

The natural and organic pavilion was as big as ever, featuring not only some of the best quality products in the market but sustainably procured, free of harsh pollutants, and assuming their place in the market after so many years of naysayers in the industry proclaiming it as a passing trend. No one is knocking a multi billion dollar share of the market any longer. I see that category continuing to grow.

The product categories that were saturated and difficult to focus on were pasta sauces and sauces in general, chocolate, pickled anything, chips and snacks, and surprisingly enough, cheeses. So many different products to choose from makes it hard to decipher what will sell and to whom. Packaging is the key to attracting your buyer initially, then flavor must prevail, price has to be competitive and often a story of origination can be a key selling factor. All those components have to be taken into consideration. Many manufacturers fall short when making the presentation because they’ve left out one or more critical elements. But more power to them! I am an advocate of the small businesses and pray for their successes to rebuild our prosperity. See you in the aisles…
Gretchen Morfogen is a regular culinary writer for The Healthy Planet magazine.

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