By Stef Schwalb
This past July, at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City, the 2018 Summer Fancy Food Show – owned and produced by the Specialty Food Association (SFA) – was in full force when it came to innovative and enticing new products from companies committed to taking the category next level.
With more than 30,000 estimated attendees and 2,400-plus companies exhibiting, the three-day extravaganza (which took place from June 30 to July 2) covered the specialty food industry from soup to nuts. The exhibitor list featured 1,300 companies from the United States, including Hawaii, Louisiana, New York and Vermont, among others, in addition to over 1,100 exhibitors from 54 countries, including France, Israel, Italy, Spain and more. This year, Greece served as the event partner country.
The show, which has been taking place since its inception in 1954, is currently “the largest marketplace devoted to exclusively specialty foods and beverages in North America.” Past events have helped launch several well-known industry brands including Ben & Jerry’s, Honest Tea and Popchips, and 2018 is bound to introduce the next generation of superstars now. From exotic flavors and spices being used in everyday foods and the “it” ingredients employed in a number of edible iterations, to sparkling beverages and upcycled products, inspiration was found at booths all throughout the 365,000-square-foot space.
Among the special exhibits and events, attendees – which consisted primarily of top professionals from specialty food service, local markets, restaurants and retailers – were able to check out industry newcomers at the “New Brands on the Shelf” pavilion; the sofi™ Awards Showcases for Outstanding Specialty Foods of the Year; the Incubator Village; What’s New, What’s Hot Showcases; the Hall of Fame and Lifetime Achievement Awards Ceremony; and the sofi™ Awards Product of the Year announcement.
There was also Front Burner: A Food Service Pitch Competition, where three exhibitors pitched their products to a panel of specialty food buyers, and Business Builders 1-to-1, a customized matchmaking program for exhibitors to present to potential buyers in pre-arranged meetings. As is tradition each year, exhibitors continued to give back by donating thousands of pounds of food to the Specialty Food Foundation, which donates them to the Summer Fancy Food Show’s charity of choice, City Harvest.
According to the Special Food Foundation, total U.S. sales in specialty foods hit $140.3 billion in 2017 – up from 11 percent since 2015. The largest categories within that figure are cheese and plant-based cheese; frozen and refrigerated meat, poultry and seafood; and chips, pretzels and snacks.
The most rapid-growing categories within retail between 2015 and 2017 include frozen desserts; refrigerated entrees and yogurt and kefir. For 2018, a walk on the show floor presented several themes and products that continued to pop up throughout all three days. Sparkling and functional beverages, based on the SFA research, are expanding more quickly in market than food categories. This includes juices, water, teas, plant protein milk, craft cocktail mixers and alternatives, wellness shots and an assortment of healthy tonics and elixirs.
Kombucha is still on the scene, and watermelon-infused drinks seem to be found in almost every beverage booth we found. Three crave-worthy finds included Caskai Sparkling Cascara Infusion from Austria made of the dried husk of the coffee cherry (cascara) – a superfood low in calories and sugar and created by upcycling a byproduct of coffee processing; Barcoop Bevy All Natural Cocktail Mixers, which comes in several succulent flavors including Agua Caliente Spicy Strawberry Margarita and Cucumber Mojito (a 2018 sofi™ Awards New Product Winner); and Eliya Pure Organic King Coconut Water, which is hand-harvested, gluten free, non-GMO with no added sugar and hails solely from Sri Lanka.
For coffee lovers, Forto Coffee Shots – ready to drink, organic, high-energy cold brew – are a dream come true for those needing a caffeine kick anywhere, anytime (and the Hershey’s Chocolate Latte is heavenly). Tea isn’t taking a back seat either as infusions appeared in everything from snack bars and chocolate to ice cream and maple syrup.
In the Incubator Village, Ginjan – an organic, non-GMO juice based on a traditional West African recipe – hits the spot combining filtered water, fresh ginger, cold-pressed pineapple and lemon juices, vanilla and anise extracts, and cane sugar. Interestingly enough, the 2018 sofi™ Award for Product of the Year went to The Bitter Housewife Cardamom Bitters from Improper Goods, which also won the coveted gold sofi™ Award. It is the first year this type of product took home the grand prize – signaling that the category is definitely coming front and center.
Moving on to food, cauliflower seems to have stepped up as the “new kale” with everything from hummus and wraps to pretzels and baking mixes using the cruciferous veggie as an integral ingredient. Quinoa continues to reign supreme as part of several treats and eats that are seriously slaying in flavor such as Undercover Quinoa Crispy Quinoa Snacks (the dark chocolate and sea salt is to die for!).
The range of sumptuous snacks from dried chickpeas to gourmet popcorn, crunchy cheese and rice bites was a bit overwhelming, but for portable products designed for on-the-go, meat/performance bars, bites, steak strips, pork cracklings and rinds by Epic were definitely Grade A as gluten-free, high in nutrients, low in sugar, 100 percent grass-fed options.
Vegetable enthusiasts will be glad to see Pan’s Mushroom Jerkymaking its mark, in addition to a veggie-based ice cream called Peekaboo (the Mint Chocolate Chunk with Spinach was a palate-pleasing surprise). Organic, gluten-free and non-GMO remain top of mind in a host of products, but what left the largest impression was the wealth of sauces, spices, spreads and syrups on display.
Condiments are becoming really cool! From seaweed sprinkles and kelp purée from Ocean’s Balance of Maine on the main show floor, to Brooklyn-based Masala Mama Foods with all natural Indian simmer sauces of Tikka Masala, Vindaloo and Coconut Curry in the Incubator Village, booths were showcasing strong in this category. Seasonings and rubs from The Spice Lab showcased some seriously innovative flavors, in addition to Bee Seasonal sustainably sourced, organic and deliciously decadent honeys.
Food bowls, frozen appetizers and entrees of the healthy persuasion continue to proliferate as well. For those with a sweet tooth, all-natural non-GMO Spread Delights was indeed a delight – not just in its tasty flavors of Chocolate Hazelnut, Almond and Raspberry Jam – but also in its ease of use with no knife needed and no kneading. Items such as avocado oil vegan mayo, delectable organic dips, crunchy coconut bites and superfood bars rounded out the experience.
Although more space could be definitely devoted to numerous other products and services that inspired us both from at home in the U.S. and abroad, we may have to revisit them next year when our appetite finally returns.
(As Featured in Food & Drink Magazine)