New York Stories: On the Floor at the 55th Summer Fancy Food Show

Imagine a place where you could sample the best, most perfectly ripened cheese you’ve ever had, followed by a bite of decadently rich chocolate, which is then even further enhanced by a shot of red wine, all finished off with a spoonful of the finest extra virgin olive oil to ever cross your lips.  Now imagine doing that every hundred feet or so, over and over, until even the notion of a single sea-salt encrusted artisanal paper thin wafer seems grossly unappealing to you.  That, in a nutshell, was our weekend at the 55th Summer Fancy Food Show at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York City.

To say that it’s possible to tour the entire Fancy Food Show in a single day is much like saying that one could see all of the artwork in the Louvre in an afternoon.  Sure, you could do it, but it would involve a lot of running through crowds, you would only catch a superficial glance of each piece, and you wouldn’t enjoy yourself in the least.  And, in perhaps the greatest of parallels, your feet and legs would hurt for days.

Consider the numbers – 140,000 food products from lands both near and far, large and small.  Two floors of exhibit space, ranging from narrow booths hosted by small producers to immense, towering pavilions representing entire countries.  Over 2,300 exhibitors from 75 countries, all vying for the attention of over 24,000 visitors, each booth with its own selection of samples.  Given those numbers, and the vastness of the Javits Center itself, The Fancy Food Show is at all times exhilarating, exhausting, and overwhelming, yet I find myself already counting the days until its return to the East Coast next year.  The scope of the Fancy Food Show is so gloriously outlandish, I may never want or need to go to any other food convention.  Only next time, I’ll be much better at pacing myself.

This was my first trade show since launching The Best Food Blog Ever, and the difference between industry events such as the Fancy Food Show and public conventions can be summed up in a single word: Power.  At conventions that are open to the public, the audience attends for a leisurely experience, and the vendors pull in customers by selling products, giving away coupons, and increasing recognition of their brand.

At a trade show such as this, though, and especially in New York City, the stakes are exponentially higher.  I glimpsed badges for retail buyers, trade affiliates, manufacturers, and distributors, some of whom had the potential to make purchasing decisions worth millions of dollars.  In some booths, men dressed in somber gray and black business suits sat in plastic folding chairs, hunched over paperwork, hashing out details of deals in progress, the intimacy of their discussions in stark contrast to the cacophony of the crowded exhibit floor.  Whenever we walked up to a vendor, you could catch the subtle downward glance at our badges – are we buyers for a major supermarket chain?  Restaurateurs looking for the next brilliant ingredient?  A guy with one of those whatchamacallits…a “blog”?  Compared to these movers and shakers, I barely registered a quiver.

We arrived at the Javits Center about a half hour after the show opened on Sunday morning.  After receiving our badges, we entered the exhibit hall armed with the same strategy that has consistently worked for us in many other conventions – start at one end of the hall and work our way up and down the aisles.  Only this time, as we neared the end of the third aisle, having tackled Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Germany, Morocco, Turkey, and half of France, we checked the time to discover that nearly two hours had passed, and we still had thirty aisles left to explore on the upper level, representing the remainder of the international vendors.  Seventeen more aisles of domestic products from states such as Texas, Virginia, and New York awaited us on the lower level.  In the hours to come, we would only be able to cover about half of the show floor before the exhibit halls closed for the day.

But, oh, how those hours were filled with decadence.  The best vendors were eager to chat and share the stories behind their products.  Some booths were staffed with representatives who demonstrated a full command of every nuance of their wares, fully capable of explaining the differences between their cheeses, for example, and those of other producers.  Others tempered their enthusiasm when they saw that I was not representing a major buyer.  In any case, we were able to sample chocolates, baked goods, jams, cheeses, and all other manner of edible nirvana.  Whenever we came across a particularly outstanding product, we’d take some literature, or ask for a press kit.  As the afternoon wore on, our plastic handbag grew portly and strained against our fingers.

In all, we spent about nine hours over the course of two days at the Fancy Food Show, and boy, do we have stories to tell.  For now, those stories have yet to be written, and you’ll just have to be a patient for a little while longer – I expect to spend at least two weeks, if not more, on the New York Stories, recounting both the Fancy Food Show as well as other food adventures.  Just as the Fancy Food Show can’t be experienced in a single day, I can’t possibly do justice to the weekend in a single entry.

I can tell you this – I ate the world’s hottest chile pepper at the Fancy Food Show, and we caught the whole thing on video.  Maybe I’ll tell you that story first.

In site news, The Best Food Blog Ever has been selected as the Blog of the Day for July 6 on the official website for the Julia & Julia movie.  I’ll be interrupting the New York Stories series for an entry about Julia Child on that day.