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Notes and comment from the Summer Fancy Food Show sponsored by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade (NASFT)

NEW YORK – One of the most heartening things about walking through the cavernous Jacob K. Javits Convention Center here for the 50th Summer Fancy Food Show is the presence of so many companies we didn’t know or didn’t recognize. In an industry where homogenization and lowest-common denominator marketing seems to be the rule rather than the exception, it’s nice to see that there is so much innovation going on at small and medium-sized companies.

That’s not to say that every aisle is distinctive. That would be asking too much. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell the difference between this olive oil and that one, this cheese and the one over there, or if the salsas and sauces being sampled here are really any different that those a few aisles back.

But that’s okay. We wandered the Fancy Food Show aisles yesterday looking, quite frankly, for taste sensations or ideas that turned us on. They won’t be everyone, and some may not succeed. They are informed by our tastes; we didn’t stop at a lot of cheese booths, for example, because we don’t eat a lot of cheese. (Though there was one cheese-related idea that caught our eye…see below.)

But that’s not a bad thing. We like going into stores where we can sense that there is some level of taste behind the items being sold – it doesn’t always have to conform to our tastes, but it does have to suggest that there is an overlying intelligence informing the buying and selling decisions being made.

And what did we like this year?

  • Spicy Cookies from SparX Foods. We walked by this booth several times, initially turned off by the idea of spicy cookies. But we couldn’t help ourselves…so we returned to taste the Chipotle Chocolate Chip and Ancho Oatmeal Raisin Cookies. And, boy, were we surprised…not just by the level of heat that stayed with us for minutes afterwards, but by the fact that the sweetness and heat actually worked well together. An unexpected pleasure.

  • Grown-Up Soda From Gus. This was one of several “grown-up soda booths that we visited and liked. We especially liked the level of carbonation and not-too-sweet flavors offered by Gus in its Dry Meyer Lemon, Star Ruby Grapefruit, and Dry Valencia Orange varieties. These are neither low-carb nor low-calorie…but they are quite good and we can imagine them being effective as a summer mixer.

  • Tommy’s Naked Soda. Another so-called “grown-up soda,” this New England company may have a little tougher road ahead of it…simply because all the sodas are clear and a little harder to get a handle on. That said, we though the Clearly Crème, Optimal Orange, and Luscious Lemon Lime varieties were delicious and worth checking into.

  • O Olive Oils. We fell in love with these citrus-flavored olive oils from O, a California company that also makes a variety of wine and rice vinegars. They were all excellent and distinctive – Meyer Lemon Olive Oil, Blood Orange olive Oil, Tahitian Lime Olive Oil, and Ruby Grapefruit Olive Oil. They weren’t at all cloyingly sweet, but delicate on the tongue and perfect for summer recipes. Yummm…

  • Bubbies Hawaiian Ice Cream. Outstanding! Bubbies has crafted some wonderful desserts by surrounding a small ball of ice cream with a paste of sweet rice…and the result works marvels in the mouth. Among the flavors we loved – passion fruit, mango and a raspberry/white chocolate combo that was like dying and going to heaven. They’re not huge portions, so you don’t feel like a pig…but after the right meal, these would be the perfect finish.

  • Zico Coconut Water. We’d never had coconut water before, despite the fact that it is a booming business in Latin America and South America. That success means that there is a ready-made market for it here in the US…and Zico is marketing a line of products that seem well-positioned to take advantage of it. We tasted three flavors – natural, mango, and passion fruit – and liked them all. This products is being sold both as a no-fat, low-calorie sports drink, as an ingredient for smoothies, and as a mixer with rum or vodka. We’re impressed.

  • Alexia Morning Fries. Alexia, which makes an excellent line of organic frozen potato products, has added an excellent item to its line - Morning Fries Yukon Gold Hashed Brown potatoes. Fat free and containing no cholesterol, as well as being free of hydrogenated oils, Morning Fries were delicious…and seem like a fairly guilt-free pleasure.

  • Cheese With A Difference. Tete de Moine, a Swiss cheese company, has come up with an ingenious way to sell its product. The company’s Fromage de Bellelay comes as a wheel with a built-in scraping tool that allows you to create wafer-thin cheese slices right out of the refrigerator. And when you’re done with the wheel, the whole thing goes in the trash can…no muss, no fuss. Great idea…and we even liked the cheese.

  • Pastas & Sauces from Francis Ford Coppola. This wasn’t a new line for us…we use these products at home all the time. But they’re excellent, and worth mentioning if you haven’t tried them. Our basic favorite – the Mammarella Ricciolini Pasta topped with Mammarella Pomodoro-Basilico Sauce, and accompanied by either the Francis Coppola Diamond Pinot Noir 2002 or the Francis Coppola Diamond Syrah 2002, whichever we happen to have on hand. Delizioso!

    (In fact, next time we have this, we're gonna put a little Andrea Bocelli on the CD player, just to make the experience authentic and educational...)

The key to most of these products is that as we walked through the aisles of the show, surrounded by sights, sounds, and smells, these are some of the items that cut through the clutter.

Which, in any supermarket, ought to be a key ingredient in identifying products that will create a differential advantage.
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