NEW YORK — It's all about ease and convenience. Consumers need to believe, so the message behind the company matters. Clean and simple rules. Everyone's worried about portion control. But if you're going to indulge, go all-in.
Those and other sometimes contradictory themes were on full display this week as specialty food purveyors from around the world tried to appeal to the one generation of buyers that seems to count these days: millennials.
Filling six football fields' worth of convention hall space, some 2,600 producers of exotic oils, condiments, cheeses, beverages, meats, confections, baked goods, sauces, butters, pastas, and more gathered for three days at the 63rd annual Summer Fancy Food Show at the Jacob Javits Center to offer samples to about 25,000 attendees looking for the latest breakout products to stock their grocery shelves or use in their restaurants, catering, or food service businesses.
Seeking to loosen the purse strings of the influential twenty- and thirtysomethings, exhibitors touted all the features their products were missing — non-GMO, gluten-free, no sugar added, nondairy, no tree nuts, no animal products – along with qualities sure to appeal: organic, grass-fed, plant-based, raw, only four ingredients, full of antioxidants, and all-natural.
But producing a tasty, and often healthier, product isn't always enough: to win buyers over, food companies now must be mission-driven. So stories abounded, from companies' sustainable production practices to a CEO's return from the brink of death to how profits would be shared with more needy populations than those who wandered the aisles of the convention center.
"We want to reduce the footprint of animal products that are really destroying our environment," said Cathleen Mandigo, marketing director of Miyoko's Creamery, a California company that makes vegan butters and cheeses. "It may sound kind of silly, but our mission is to change the world, one cheese round at a time."
Upstairs, Dan Schorr, CEO of Vice Cream, a super-premium ice cream from Boston, was explaining how his cancer diagnosis three years ago, when he was given only 12 weeks to live, drove the company's theme of unapologetic indulgence.
"If you want to lose weight, go to the gym, and, sure, have your quinoa, but when it comes to ice cream, we say 'Eat … ice cream,' " said Schorr, who, now in remission, takes that message to local hospitals where he distributes pints of his ice cream.
Barb "Bobby Sue" Kobren, founder of Bobby Sue's Nuts, said two percent of the profits from its sweet and savory nut combinations go to the SPCA of Westchester, N.Y.; Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, N.Y., embraces its hiring of ex-convicts and the homeless to help produce its brownies and cookies. Greyston's Harvest Cookie won the gold Sofi Award, the show's version of the Oscars, for best cookie, and Bobby Sue's took the gold and silver awards in the savory snack category for its delicious Everything Goes Nuts and Nuts Over Olives mixes.
In the crowded field of specialty foods and beverages, messaging is critical, says Denise Purcell of the Specialty Food Association, which holds the Fancy Food Show each year. "Younger consumers don't want to just enjoy good products," she said. "They want the people behind the products to have the same values as they do."
Nearly every U.S. state was represented at the show, along with 46 countries, with Pennsylvania and New Jersey making small but significant contributions. Le Bon Magot, an African-, Middle Eastern-, and South Asian-inspired condiment producer in Lawrenceville, N.J., walked away with five SOFI awards across three categories.
Sweet and savory, with a hint of smoky cinnamon, its spiced raisin marmalata won gold and best new product in the jam category, and the lemon-sultana marmalata took bronze in that category. A tomato and white sultanta chutney took gold in the condiment category; the brinjal caponata, a subtle but complex mix of pickled eggplant, cumin, and curry leaves won bronze in the pickled vegetable group.
Pennsylvania, and, more specifically, Philadelphia, was well represented by a product that appeared to follow none of the trends. From the family that introduced Jimmy's Milan salad to the city in 1951, from its signature restaurant at 19th and Chestnut Streets, now comes the bottled dressing available to consumers. The pink, creamy Russian-Italian blend, coating a mix of Romaine lettuce, tomatoes, egg, bacon, and shrimp, drew a steady line of visitors to the booth for these first-time show exhibitors. (The dressing is available at a variety of specialty stores in the region, including the Pennsylvania General Store at Reading Terminal Market and DiBruno Bros.' Rittenhouse Sqaure store.)
"People continue to ask for the dressing by name," said Ann Colin Tanenbaum, daughter-in-law of the family that owned the restaurant. "I heard there was a food show and decided to come. I'm not one to wait for people to come to me."
Beyond the messages, several trends emerged at this year's show. On the flavor front, some ingredients were having a heyday, including health-enhancing foreign seasonings like turmeric, saffron, and cardamom, as well as figs, chickpeas, coconut, and liquor and smoked flavorings. Natalie's juice company has just added a juice with carrot, ginger, turmeric, and apple to its popular line of citrus fruit juices, and Rumi Spice, a Chicago company founded three years ago to support saffron farmers in Afghanistan, has introduced saffron gummies, chewy gumdrops studded with threads of saffron.
Figs showed up in chutneys, sauces, and even as fig jerky; chickpeas came dried and covered with chocolate, puffed, and as bread-crumblike coatings; bourbon, vodka, and gin were added to the jams and spreads produced by Jammit Jam from Texas, and smoked flavor provided an interesting edge to Bittermilk's Charred Grapefruit Tonic with sea salt, the gold winner in the drink and cocktail mix category. But coconut was king, not only appearing in every imaginable liquid and solid format, but grabbing top honors, with Anastasia's Coconut Cashew Crunch taking home the best of show prize on Monday afternoon.