If food is love, then the Fancy Food Show is a culinary orgy. Sponsored by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, it’s an annual gathering of over 2-thousand exhibitors showing off their wares to buyers for grocery stores, gourmet food shops, and restaurants. A lot of goodies in your pantry debuted at the show.
As a first-time attendee, I was overwhelmed at the sheer size and scope of the show. It completed filled both levels of Washington, DC’s convention center. I did some quick math: 2,250 exhibitors, doors open for 30 hours spread over three days. That meant visiting 75 booths an hour. Not likely, even at a jog.
I asked for advice from other writers in the press room. Treat it like the world’s largest culinary shopping mall, I was told. Pick out the few vendors you really want to see, and then browse the rest of the marketplace. Oh, and don’t even think about trying to sample the wares at every booth. “No more than two bites of anything,” one veteran warned me. “I always carry a supply of antacids,” she added, offering me a roll of Tums.
Each breath of the air in the exhibit hall probably held the daily caloric intake for the defensive line of the Pittsburgh Steelers. My plan was to stroll down one side of an aisle, then up the other in a continuous serpentine of gastronomic adventure. Exhibitors are assigned spaces apparently at random, creating a delightful sense of discovery. The first row had, in order: French style 5-bean soup (small cup), gelato (tasting spoon of coffee flavored), beef jerky from Colorado (bite-sized strip of each of the three flavors), flavored balsamic vinegars (sipping cup of one), tinned tuna (passed on that), sliced smoked salmon on crackers (three), chocolate almond wafer cookies (one), all-natural bubble gum (two small nuggets; I thought they were after-dinner mints until they were in my mouth), and sugar wafer cookies (one-half of one). It was only 9:15, and the hall was open until 5.
New strategy: take a break for 10 minutes every hour. Some exhibitors wisely provided seating areas where guests could enjoy the vendor’s product at leisure. Others had cooking demonstrations. Stay hydrated: never turn down an offer of juice, lemonade, or water – flavored or otherwise.
While most exhibitors are based in the US, there was a sizeable international presence. The growing multi-cultural, multi-ethnic makeup and interest of US shoppers was reflected with areas dedicated to foods from Italy, Spain, China, and Greece. You’d expect those. But Tunisia and Morocco were there with cheeses and olives and olive oils. Poland, Kenya, Romania, Egypt, and Malaysia were among the roughly 50 international exhibitors.
The big trends: anything having to do with tea; olives and olive oils; coconuts, as ingredient and as an oil; Kosher products, for the perception that Kosher food production is healthier than standard industry procedures; ethical, sustainable, and humane farming; gluten-free, allergen-free products; lots of prepared simmer sauces and spice kits for ethnic cuisines that are either labor-intensive to prepare or are unfamiliar for most households, like Indian and Malaysian foods. When you notice those things in the grocery stores and gourmet shops now, you’ll know where the big push for them started.