Trip Report: Winter 2017 Fancy Food Show

Clay Gordon
02/18/17 12:14:23
1,680 posts


I first started attending high tech industry trade shows in 1983, and in the intervening 30+ years I have probably attended - or been a presenter and/or exhibitor at - well over 200 trade shows and festivals of all kinds in the US and Europe, ranging from small local and regional chocolate festivals such as the NW Chocolate Festival to the NCGA (National Computer Graphics Association,, SIGGRAPH (Special Interest Group for Graphics of the Association for Computing Machinery), Photokina, MILIA (International Multimedia Market), NAB (National Association of Broadcasters), Salons du Chocolat, CHOCOA, FFS (Fancy Food Show), FCIA (Fine Chocolate Industry Association), the National and World Pastry Team Chamionships/World Pastry Forum, Expo East, NY Restaurant Association, IBIE (International Baking Industry Exhibition), and many more.

Although there are several different industries involved in the list of festivals and shows above, as a participant in these shows and events one of my primary goals in taking part has always been to gain perspective by seeing changes over time. There’s always something new and noteworthy to find at each show, but is it a fad or a genuine trend that needs to be taken seriously? It gets easier, I find, to make these kinds of evaluations the more experience I have. I get to see different aspects of the same industry, so I can look at new product introductions from different points of view.

However, it is possible to over-attend. When this happens, all you ever end up seeing is incremental change, if even that. “New” and “noteworthy” end of being tied to minor “innovations” such as new packaging, and really anything substantive.

All that introduction aside, I have been attending FFSs since the summer of 2001. I vividly remember meeting Frederick Schilling at that show - also the first FFS for Dagoba. While I believe I have been to maybe all but one or two Summer FFS since 2001, I only started attending the Winter FFS regularly since 2010 or so. Over that time I have seen flavor fads and trends and companies come and go.

Follwing is a sampling of what stood out at this year’s Winter FFS. As a chocolate professional who is making chocolate or confections, some of my observations and fads, trends, and flavors may spark new product ideas for you to explore. I hope so!

Diversity: The Winter FFS in San Francisco has a different mix of exhibitors than does the Summer FFS in New York. While there are large country pavilions at both shows, there are more and they are bigger at the Summer Show, which also includes many more US state-sponsored areas.

Cheese: While cheese has always been a large part of both FFSs, it’s always seemed to me to occupy more space at the Winter FFS and this year there was so much cheese you could have called it the FCS+ (Fancy Cheese Show plus other stuff) and not been far off. Cheese offerings ranged from very small producers to very large ones and encompassed so many different varieties and examples of each that I found it to be literally overwhelming (as well as very tasty).

Influence: This does lead into a very interesting fact about the center of gravity that both the Winter and Summer FFS have become. Because of the sheer number of people who attend, the FFS has accumulated a number of satellite festivals deliberately scheduled to coincide with the FFS. At the Winter FFS these include the Good Food Awards, the Fine Chocolate Industry Association, and the Cheese Monger Invitational. Two of these three are also scheduled around the Summer FFS.

Superfoods: As a category, superfoods are less important at the FFS than they are at Expos East and West. Exhibitors in this category seemed to me to be down from prior shows, but there were a couple of entries for a “new” (at least to this show) superfood: morninga. As this was my first sighting, and the number of exhibitors was small, it remains to be seen if this was just a blip or if it’s the start of a fad that could turn into a sustainable trend. This sector of the market relies on the introduction of new products to keep it interesting so I will be on the lookout for moringa at the Summer FFS.

Confections: A number of entries in the gourmet marshmallow category made themselves immediately visible. I firmly believe that the standard grocery store marshmallow only has a place for campfire s’mores and as a binder for crisped rice treats. A well-made marshmallow is a real treat, and the ones I tasted were all well made. But marshmallows always seem to me to be an afterthought and a category that seems like it would be price sensitive. If gourmet marshmallows survive and thrive I think it will be because of the following trend:

Not as bad for you: There is a growing number of companies that are selling sugar candy with advertising and marketing that includes “all natural” and “organic”. But it’s still mostly sugar and therefore not good for you  … but you can feel good giving it to your kids or eating it yourself because it’s not as bad for you. No HFCS, no GMOs, vegan (or suitable for vegetarians) gluten free, no artificial flavors or preservatives, only they are still 100% empty calories with very little to no actual nutritional value. This is an actual trend.

Another health-related claim that caught my eye was probiotics. Normally associated with fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and others, there is now a move to add probiotics and prebiotics to foods that normally don’t have them. This includes chocolate. One company markets theirs added-probiotic chocolate as “The Planet’s Best Chocolate” and the phrase is not trademarked. A bold claim and as someone who has eaten a lot of chocolate - professionally - over the past 20 years, I can say that these do not come close to being the best on the planet. Maybe it depends on what they mean by best: what the meaning of “is, is.” Best tasting? Healthiest? Most environmentally sustainable? All? A hyperbolic claim that is mostly objectively unprovable. They also claim that their 72% cocoa, which is “always smooth, never bitter” to 28 years to develop. They will likely be successful, despite the fact that it’s objectively not the best chocolate on the planet.

Finally, on this topic, there were a lot fewer stands promoting raw products. At least within the specialty foods markets served by the FFS, raw is past its prime. Likely those companies are now congregating over at Expos East and West.

Reimagining maple:  Maple is a very highly regarded sweetener. So highly regarded that Canada maintains a strategic reserve to help manage price volatility. It is also highly regarded among those who are concerned about the types of sugars they consume and has a reputation for being “better” and  “cleaner” than other sweeteners. Plus, it is vegan. However, maple is also, apparently, boring. There were many maple companies offering up flavored maple syrups, some of which sounded quite un-tasty, thank you very much. I don’t know what to make of this, expect to speculate at the root cause, which is slowing sales. Flavored maples, which are easy to make at home (I have been infusing fresh ginger into maple syrup for years), are a way to add SKUs and attract new consumers. This is an adoption of a common strategy in other areas: flavored oils and vinegars – a strategy that is being enthusiastically adopted in …

Jerky: The jerky category has been growing wildly (at least in terms of the number of companies in the category) for years. At first, it was okay to have three varieties: plain, peppered, and teriyaki. When growth started flatlining, there were two areas of extension; adding in meats other than beef, and downsizing and claiming to be “craft” - whatever that means when you’re processing tons and tons of product a week. A couple of years ago we saw the first moves into ethnic jerky, specifically biltong from South Africa, and Winter FFS saw the introduction of others, including Singaporean street jerky. Attendees at Winter FFS were also subjected to an explosion of new flavors, including fruit-flavored jerkies, new types of peppers - if I recall correctly even a scorpion pepper-flavored jerky - and more. My guess is that we are going to see a lot more “innovation” in this space over the next six months. Chocolate-flavored jerky, anyone?

Kombucha and cold brew: Lots more kombucha and cold brew coffee concentrates, and also the introduction of new ways to serve them: taps such as those used for beers. For several years it’s been possible to self-fill growlers of kombucha and my guess is that this is about to go mainstream. Self-serve cold-brew is not far behind. (Though, I gotta admit, I don’t see how self-serve cold brew can compete with a barista-assembled Draft Latte from La Colombe.)

Bone broth: The science behind the benefits and efficacy of consuming bone broth is shaky. So, while the companies offering it seemed to appear from nowhere, I don’t see this as anything more than a fad. Of course, being faddish never stopped anything from being wildly successful so I could be entirely wrong here - and shaky science behind a food claim has never deterred anybody, ever, as near as I can tell.

Artisan: The word artisan has been so overused it’s become virtually meaningless. While there are some formal definitions for artisan (fin France, in order for a boulangerie to advertise its bread as “artisan” the dough must be mixed, proofed, and baked on premises), there is no guidance here in the US for its use. Even though the term has lost currency, companies are not abandoning it, and are even doubling-down with compound phrases such as “fine artisan” and “high-end artisan” and even “elevated artisan.” These are nonsensical to me and do not solve the problem. Part of my issue with these is that no one would claim to make the inverse claim: my product is low-end artisan, or my product is so-so artisan. No one ever claims to use the world’s second-best chocolate. Only the best. World’s finest/freshest - insert adjective here - no one ever claims to use or make anything but the best. Even when the ingredients list is rife with industrially-made replacement ingredients, the maker will try to search for some “best’ adjective.

But, what about chocolate? Nothing new and interesting? Not much, actually. Part of this is that it’s hard to really innovate in chocolate, and I don’t think that adding probiotics to chocolate is interesting, at least not to me. Still yet another raw or semi-raw chocolate is not new or interesting. Another from-the-bean company offering still yet another two-ingredient chocolate is not going to move the needle. There was a lot of beautiful new branding and packaging to admire, and the examples I saw will no doubt help sales, but I don’t know that that as newsworthy in this context.

At the FCIA meeting on Saturday, it was revealed that - at least among consumers who identify as fine chocolate lovers - that health was not a strong motivating factor in their purchasing decisions. More recently, however, research firm Euromonitor announced that health-related claims are going to be a major factor in growth - at least in the mass market. It remains to be seen what the lasting impact will be in the specialty market.

But I did run across two products with chocolate that caught my eye.

The first was a result of some out of the box thinking and involved using nori (the pressed, dried, seaweed paper that is used for sushi and has recently caught fire as a snack), as the crunchy element in confection. A thin layer of (flavored) chocolate is sandwiched between two sheets of nori. The nori not only provides the crunch, it imparts a salty/umami character to the product that is really quite interesting. I have no idea if this will take off, but I liked the products I tasted - a lot - and I think it’s a great example of what innovation can and should look like in chocolate.

The second was a straight-up, no apologies asked for appeal to childhood: Bond Bar’s Bond Bites Caramel S’Mores. If these were available by the tray, uncut, I would order one. And maybe not share with anyone. The only possible way to make them better would be to add bacon to the caramel.

The next show I am planning to attend is the New York Restaurant Show in March, so expect another report on what I saw on the show floor.

clay -

updated by @clay: 02/18/17 12:15:32
Robyn Dochterman
02/19/17 17:16:11
23 posts

Thanks for being our eyes and ears on the show floor, Clay!


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@the-4-chocolatiers • 7 years ago

Two changes we made with the chocolate is that this time we winnowed the chocolate. This time we didn't use a blow dryer to melt the chocolate. Two improvements with the chocolate is that the melanger didn't get clogged this time and everyone put in work.