Annual Report from the West Coast Fancy Food Show

With Gretchen Morfogen


San Francisco is by far one of my favorite cities in the world. Every year or so I have the opportunity to go back for the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade Show (NASFTS) This year was unique in that the economy has played a very serious role in the development and survival of a fairly fragile industry. Fragile because many of the items marketed here are placed in a luxury category for grocery purchases. There isn’t anything presented here that we could live without with a few exceptions (cheese, olive oil, coffee-at least I couldn’t) But it does offer some of the most divinely palatable goods for the swankiest pantry, novice, gourmet or professional cook. Many of these items have been shelf staples for decades but have evolved into specialty products that add convenience, simplicity, and lavishness to our everyday consumption of foods.

There are also plenty of “razzies” when it comes to products that are just ridiculous and I’ll get to those a bit later. What all the products offer however, is a window into our ability to create, develop, market, merchandise and lure the consumer into purchasing this product via packaging, pitch line, health claims etc. Every year there are winners of an award that distinguishes a company, brand or product that has set itself apart from the masses and offered a point of difference to the consumer through, visual, structural or palatable engineering. Do these products last in a fickle market? Some do. Some don’t.

Having attended several of the past food shows over the past three decades, I love to spend time walking the convention floor where hundreds of vendors and thousands of attendees taste, sip, sample, chat and deal with product presentations over a three day period. What I observed this year was an overall energy of economic hope for recovery in the industry. Many vendors were glad to say good riddance to 2009 in hopes of moving towards a more stable market where consumers are able to spend money on the higher end foods.

There is always category saturation and this year it was condiments (sauces- sweet and savory, jams, jellies, syrups, dressings etc.) popcorn (every possible imaginable and unimaginable flavor combination) cheese (there can never be too much!), kitschy confections and weird snacks that aren’t popcorn.  Past overkill categories were infused salts, salsas, bottled water, chocolate and tea but his time around these weren’t nearly as prevalent.

Some of the products that deserve the proverbial boot- “razzies”,in my opinion- were Cupless Joe (a coffee capsule) Water with Intention (bottled water –you’re supposed to think good thoughts while drinking it) Flavored Foams (think instant cappuccino foam in a cheese whiz can with flavors like wasabi, parmesan, pepper) I’d get back to the drawing board on those.

Ironically enough, the best thing I saw wasn’t even at the show. There is a woman chef in Monterey who is making packaged fresh artichokes. They are picked (in Monterey) cleaned, trimmed, steamed or grilled by hand and coarsely chopped, vacuum packed with lemon juice and a tiny bit of garlic. Simple yet they are unbelievably delicious. You taste these and you will never buy canned artichokes again. She makes a few flavors grilled, buffalo (she’s from Buffalo), lemon herb and plain. Production is limited but they are so amazing I can see them appearing on store shelves soon….

Notable immerging trends that I believe are here to stay are green packaging, business with a mission (purposeful operations that impact more than the bottom line) stricter food safety regulations (or at least awareness on our part) food source accountability (linking us to our food) better nutrition education for children and the poor.  In the specialty food market the specific trends continue to be health directed, gluten free, exotic fruits, and nostalgic foods. We’ll see how these play out….