Four Lessons from The Fancy Food Show

Yes, it’s that time of year again.  For the second consecutive year, the National Association for the Specialty Foods Trade held its annual convention in Washington DC, and we trekked down to the nation’s capitol to discover what’s new, hot, and happening in the food world.  The Fancy Food Show is home to 2,400 exhibitors showcasing 180,000 products spanning every possible facet of gourmet food and beverage, with representation by over 80 countries and regions.

After checking in and picking up my badge, the Press Room Manager said to me, “I don’t need to tell you about the show, you’re a veteran.”  She’s one of those people that I see once a year, but we recognize each other on sight, if not by name, and she does a good job ensuring that badge pickup runs smoothly and that I start the show in a good mood as a result.

Her comment made me pause.  Was this really my fourth time at the Fancy Food Show?  Had I finally learned how to pace myself properly, to keep from exploding in a mushroom cloud of chocolate, cheese, and olive oil?  After miles and miles logged on the carpeted floor of exhibit halls in New York and Washington, had I reached a point where I could speak of the experience with authority?  Maybe I have.  And maybe I should.

In the past, I’ve always written about the Fancy Food Show from the perspective of an attendee, but I’ve come to realize that many exhibitors, especially those who’ve never been to the Fancy Food Show, can be just as overwhelmed by the experience, if not more so.  Sure, you can get your booth set up, fan some literature out on the table, and offer samples to the throngs of conventioneers – but it can be so much more than that.

One: Build Relationships.  All Year Long.
Every year, about a week before the Fancy Food Show, my inbox gets bombarded with offers to meet and interview the founders, creators, and corporate representatives of exhibitors at the show. It’s all so flattering!  And overwhelming!  And…entirely ineffective!  Here’s why.

It’s too much information to process. Most of these emails, even from companies whose products truly interest me, go unanswered, because they’re in competition both with each other as well as with all of my regular, non-Fancy Food Show email.  To break through all of that noise and reach me, we need to cultivate a relationship prior to the show.  It can be a quick back-and-forth on Twitter, or an email exchange, something that reveals that a producer has at least read a little bit of my writing and has a hunch that their product is a good fit with the site.  The interviews that I’m featuring from the show floor this year were pretty much ad hoc, not staged or formally arranged prior to the show.  In each of these cases, the companies distinguished themselves as being outstanding in their field, and tasting their product made me want to learn more about the people and the stories behind the process.

Two:  Try To Look Like You’re Having Fun
Most of the exhibitors were really into showing off their products, and would readily engage anyone who came up to their table for a sample or some literature.  But with 2,400 exhibitors spread out over two floors of the convention center, attendees have an extremely limited window of opportunity to interact with companies.  If your booth was manned by just one person, sitting in a folding chair and checking email on their phone, chances are very good that I didn’t stop.  No big deal, because I’m only me, but that probably holds true for any number of major distributors and retailers looking for the next hot thing to stock the shelves.  The lesson to be learned is this – send your best, most knowledgeable, and most enthusiastic people to represent your company, without exception.  Grill them on your product, if you have to.  Role play in the weeks leading up to the show.  Emphasize the importance of the fact that the Fancy Food Show is not about babysitting the booth and refilling samples, it’s about winning the game of distinguishing your goods out of a field of thousands.  It’s not easy.

Three: Distinguish Your Product
This is probably the hardest goal to meet.  For one thing, you’re in a massive convention center filled to the rafters with thousands of outstanding products.  But, from my point of view as an attendee, I can tell you that it will be a long time before I’ll be able to try another Sea Salt Caramel anything.  It’s easier to stand out if you’re one of the first producers of an innovative product (black garlic comes to mind), but as breakout product transforms into trend and then becomes almost mainstream (like sea salt and caramel), it just gets harder and harder.  So, how did producers grab my attention this year?  By having great stories behind the products, and inspiring people who were driven to succeed despite initial setbacks.  Or people who just got lucky with an amazing recipe.

Four:  Please Step Aside, You Giant Annoying Waffle
As an attendee, I’ve already talked about having a narrow window of opportunity to experience as much of the Fancy Food Show as my legs will permit over a two to three day period.  So, imagine my consternation, when I’m trying to get from one end of an aisle to the other, and my path is blocked by a giant, wildly gesticulating waffle.  It’s one thing if your company has a huge pavilion, and you’ve got some elbow room to offer once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunities with your WafflePerson.  But if you’ve got a 10 foot square booth, and your mascot is standing in the middle of the aisle, I’m not going to remember your product.  I’m just going to remember the annoying Waffle.

July 9, 2012   Comments

Summer Fancy Food Show – The Third Time’s The Charm

Pace yourself,” I was told as I picked up my badge at the registration desk for this summer’s Fancy Food Show.  Truer words were never spoken.

Three years ago, I attended my first Fancy Food Show at the Jacob Javits Center in New York, where I proceeded to utterly fail at pacing myself.  Upon entering the cavernous exhibit halls, I was immediately overwhelmed by the cornucopia of high-end cheese, chocolate, olive oil and other specialty food offerings, all accompanied by the background hum of the distributors, producers, brokers, and other industry representatives wheeling and dealing in a dozen different languages.  It’s magical.  It’s electric.  It is also very exhausting.

By the time we had reached the end of the second aisle, as measured from the front of the Javits Center to the back wall, we found ourselves full from samples, our progress slowing and hampered by our efforts to negotiate the crowds.  The worst part?  It took us close to an hour just to get through two aisles. Over the next two days of nearly constant walking, sampling, and frequent stops to rest, we only managed to see about a third of the 2,300 exhibiting companies that year.

The next year, having obviously not learned my lesson from the prior year, I made the naive commitment to covering the entire show, all floors, all booths.  Over the course of three days, I hit every vendor from every nook and cranny of the culinary universe – from the largest European pavilions down to the Mom and Pop businesses selling products based on a family recipe.  On the third day, after visiting the most remote booths of the lower level of the convention center, my mission was accomplished.  But instead of feeling a sense of achievement, I felt burned out, unable to process all of the information into a coherent thought.  My legs and back hurt for days afterwards.

This year, I settled on a hybrid approach to covering the Fancy Food Show, one that would focus on discovering the vendors and products that were nominated for sofi awards, considered by many to be the Oscars of the specialty food industry.  I would bypass any vendors that were already familiar to me, or whose products I had already sampled in earlier visits.  I would seek out products that were awarded the sofi Silver awards, with special attention to those that were in the running for sofi Gold awards.  I was intent on walking the entire exhibit floor, but not necessarily stopping at each exhibitor.  It would be the equivalent of strolling through an art museum, but not reading the description of each individual work.

There are, of course, always exceptions to the “no familiar vendors” rule.  It’s an imperative to visit the Vosges booth to sample such wares as their Black Salt Caramel Bar (sofi Gold winner for Chocolate) and to indulge in what was probably the best brownie that I’ve ever had in my lifetime, still warm from the oven.  Nueske’s produces the finest bacon and smoked meat products on the planet, so it would be ludicrous to bypass a free sample.  Sometimes, you can even be caught off guard by a food that’s familiar, but produced at a level of quality that far exceeds anything you’d expect from a packaged product, as was the case with the Hancock Gourmet Lobster Co.’s line of products that included lobster pot pie, lobster corn chowder, and lobster mac and cheese that you would swear were never frozen.  sofi Gold winner for Outstanding Product Line?  Absolutely.

One of the thrills of attending a Fancy Food Show is being able to spot and taste innovative products before they hit the mainstream, and sometimes before they’re even released for sale to the public.  For example, one of last year’s most interesting new products, black garlic, is just now starting to appear on grocery store shelves.  Not the same as roasted garlic, black garlic presents itself as a sweet and savory flavor that’s hard to identify at first, and it’s starting to see integration into restaurant dishes.  Garlic also played prominently in this year’s awards, with the sofi Gold award for best new product going to GarLic It!, which describes itself as a private reserve caramelized garlic finish.  Having received a sample of GarLic It! a few days ago, I popped open the jar and stirred a tablespoon of the bronze shards into a pot of orzo, transforming it into an upscale accompaniment without any effort whatsoever.

It’s the thrill of these types of discoveries that keeps me coming back to the Fancy Food Show.  I even found the change of venue to Washington DC, triggered by long-term renovation work at the Javits Center, to be refreshing, since I was able to leave the convention center and be within walking distance of the hotel and other points of interest.

August 16, 2011   Comments

New York Stories: Shelter from the Storm, and a Huge Pastrami Sandwich at Katz’s Delicatessen

On a temperate summer day in New York City, the wind turned blustery, the blue sky transformed into a menacing shade of gray, and within moments, the heavens opened up.  The rain was intense, and the streets and sidewalks were mottled for only an instant before they became completely saturated, the gutters failing to keep pace with the rushing waters.  Pedestrians caught unprepared huddled together under the nearest available awning or bus stop shelter, forced to invade each others’ respective personal spaces by an Act of God.

All of this meteorological chaos was perfectly fine by me, because while it was happening, I was sitting in Katz’s Delicatessen, shoving an enormous pastrami sandwich into my gaping maw and tipping back a bottle of Brooklyn Lager.  We did not take an umbrella with us, but if there’s a place to hole up as you wait for a summer rainstorm to pass, you couldn’t ask for better.

In the weeks leading up to our trip to New York City for the 55th Summer Fancy Food Show, we had firmly decided that we wanted to make a return to this classic deli on the Lower East Side.  With our memories of our first experience quite fuzzy (in our defense, it was 2:30am and we had just emerged from a nearby nightclub), we knew that we wanted to experience Katz’s Delicatessen during the daylight hours.

The scene could not have been more different. At 2:30am, we were one of only a handful of occupied tables in the vast wood-paneled dining hall, which is decorated with framed pictures of famous people who’ve eaten there.  I remember reviewing the selection of items that is displayed on the wall above and behind the cutters’ stations, walking up to the lone cutter on duty, ordering our sandwiches, and making small talk as he assembled our meal.  This time, I stood at the end of a substantial line of people that snaked through to the front of the restaurant.  Here’s a helpful hint: each cutter has his own line, but most folks go to the line that is nearest to the entrance – move further into the hall to shorten your wait at a shorter line.  Almost every table was occupied, and when we managed to squeeze ourselves into an empty space, the back of my chair butted up against a neighboring table.  When I reached the counter, I had to raise my voice to call out my order.  I honestly think that it was the same cutter as from our first trip.

I made it through ordering the corned beef and pastrami sandwiches without incident.  I knew that I had a fifty percent chance of getting the next thing right.  “I’ll take one corned beef, one pastrami, and…a…knish.”  I had pronounced it “nish”, in the sincere hope that the ‘k’ served just as useful a function as it does in the word ‘knight’.

“You mean a “KA-nish?” the cutter replied, deadly serious. I was glad to have the counter serve as a barrier between us.

“Um, yeah.  That.”  He motioned me to the other counter to place the knish order.  That’s the quirky thing about Katz’s Delicatessen – if you want a sandwich, you go to one of the many cutters in the center of the counter, if you want a hot dog or knish, you go to the station at the end.  Want a soda?  Go down to the other end.  Want a beer?  Go back to where you ordered the hot dog.  You could skip all of this exercise by asking for table service, but where’s the fun in that?  Plus, if you go to the counter to get your sandwiches, the cutter will always provide you with a sample of the meat for your approval before he begins carving your order.

The sandwiches at Katz’s Delicatessen are immense, heavy with the weight of 121 years of tradition.  They are true deli sandwiches, served with a combination of sweet and tart pickles on the side and a swipe of sharp yellow deli mustard that serves to cut the richness of the fatty meat.  The pastrami sandwich is a full two inches of meat, precariously balanced on a comparatively small and thin platform of rye bread, its beefy edges crusted with spice rub.  The corned beef is similarly endowed, but with a juicier, fattier aspect that is characteristic of a superlative brisket.  As good as the corned beef can be, you can reach for epicurean nirvana by ordering a classic corned beef Reuben, which pairs the meat with a mountain of tangy sauerkraut and a layer of Swiss cheese so thick, you could ski down it.

The knish is a rectangular pillow of dough wrapped around a densely packed filling of potato and onion, fried until golden.  I highly recommend it if you’ve never had one.  You should be aware, though, that there are two varieties of knish.  The Coney Island knish is as I have described; there is also a traditional Jewish knish that is round and baked.  I tried one once and didn’t like it as much as the Coney Island, but you should taste one of each since it’s a matter of personal preference.

The last thing you need to know about Katz’s Delicatessen is this – they work off of a ticket system.  When you come into the deli, you’re handed an orange ticket, and as you order different items from the counter, the countermen take your ticket, mark it with what you’ve ordered, and pass it back to you.  At the end of the meal, you hand your ticket to the cashier, who totals it and takes your money.

Don’t even ask what happens if you lose your ticket.  You, and your wallet, really don’t want to know.

July 20, 2009   Comments

The Best Food Blog Ever Meets The Hottest Chile Pepper Ever

(If the video is all stuttery, you can switch to HD Off and it will play much more smoothly)

The Best Food Blog Ever Eats The Hottest Chile Pepper Ever from DDL on Vimeo.

Shortly after arriving on the exhibit floor of the Fancy Food Show at the Javits Convention Center, having progressed through Argentina and Mexico, we came upon the booth for Blair’s Death Sauces and Snacks.  It was festively decorated in the way that heavy black cloth, skulls, flames, and madness tend to liven up things.

As we passed in front of the booth, a woman extended a tray of spicy potato chips for my perusal.  I would have sampled a few, but my attention was immediately drawn to Blair Lazar, who had a ceramic knife in one hand and a wooden cutting board in the other, liberally coated with the dark crimson shards of a dried chile pepper.  With all of the flair of a carnival hawker who already knows the outcome of your gamble, Blair was offering tastes of his newest product, a smoked and dried Bhut Jolokia chile pepper.  His eyes locked on me, and he beckoned me forth with the tip of the knife waving in the air in front of him.  “Come try the Bhut Jolokia,” he shouted above the din, “the hottest chile pepper on the planet!”

We had only just arrived at the show, and I had forty-five aisles of samples yet to come.  I really wasn’t keen on trying the pepper, even though I’m a fan of spicy food, but when you have a food blog, a video camera, and Blair Lazar himself offers you a smoked Bhut Jolokia chile pepper, I realized that there’s really no other option other than to rise to the challenge.  Not familiar with the Bhut Jolokia?  Read on.

The Bhut Jolokia is native to India and is officially classified by scientific authorities and the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s hottest chile pepper.  It is also known as the Naga Jolokia and the Ghost Pepper – presumably because after eating one, your soul just vaporizes out of your pores, leaving you an empty, smoldering shell.

The standard measure of the spice level of a chile pepper is the Scoville Heat Unit (SHU).  A typical jalapeno pepper measures around 10,000 SHUs.  An orange habanero pepper, one of the hottest of that variety, clocks in at 357,729 SHUs, which would surely test the  tolerance of the most dedicated chile aficionado.  By comparison, the Bhut Jolokia pepper blows the curve completely, measuring at an astounding 1,001,304 units of heat.  Indian defense scientists are looking to use the Bhut Jolokia extract in grenades for riot control purposes.  In paste form, the Bhut Jolokia is used to repel elephants.  I am not joking.

We turned on the camcorder and started recording.  A small crowd had gathered in front of the booth, spectating in the same way that one would watch NASCAR for the fiery crashes.

Blair tipped the knife, and a small fragment of Bhut Jolokia cascaded into the palm of my hand.  I gave it a cursory examination, sniffed at it, then tucked it into a corner of my mouth like chewing tobacco.

As with most chile peppers, there’s a certain delay before the true onset of spice on the tongue.  Blair, ever the showman, narrated cheerfully as my Bhut Jolokia sample began to unravel its mysteries upon my palate.  I chewed the Bhut Jolokia once, twice…then everything in my world turned white-hot.  The Bhut Jolokia had opened up like an angry bronco unleashed from its pen.  The Bhut Jolokia is fury.

With most hot peppers, the burn begins as a tingle on your tongue that, for particularly spicy chiles, escalates to discomfort within a few seconds.  The Bhut Jolokia is unlike any other – the entire right side of my face flashed numb with pain just as soon as the burn hit, the heat radiating from the spot in my cheek, spreading across my face and down my neck.  While other peppers come on like an upward slope, the Bhut Jolokia takes off like a rocket, only this rocket incinerates the launch pad and every single living creature within five miles of it.  It’s a nuclear detonation inside of your mouth.

It was imperative that I refrain from panicking.  This is, of course, more easily said than done, because panic is your body’s first reaction to the incredible pain that visits upon your senses as you realize that this, truly, is the spiciest thing that you will have ever tasted in your lifetime.  Panic, thought, would only lead to breathing faster, possibly to the point of hyperventilation, which only causes more air to move across your tongue, which serves to magnify the burn even more.  I willed myself into a Zen state of calm, breathing as normally as I could muster as the oils from the Bhut Jolokia tormented my senses in an unbridled, full-on assault.  Beads of sweat began forming on my brow as I rode out the pain, every second bringing heretofore undiscovered levels of spice.

It’s also crucial, surprisingly, to avoid drinking any water for the duration of the burn, a critical error committed by many novice pepper eaters.  Oil and water don’t mix, so the only effect of downing a bottle of water would be to distribute the volatile oils throughout your mouth, spreading them around your tongue, your cheeks, and down your esophagus.  The only thing that defeats a Bhut Jolokia is time.  Actually, let me amend that – the only thing that defeats Bhut Jolokia is time and massive quantities of ripened soft cheeses.  It’s a very good thing that we were at the Fancy Food Show and surrounded on all sides by breads, cheese, and crackers.  After about fifteen minutes, and several samples of brie, the pain that had been so intense at the start had subsided to a gentle simmer, enough to allow me to continue my tour of the exhibit floor.

July 14, 2009   Comments

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.

July 1, 2009   Comments