Temptation beckoned with every step I took (and I counted tens of thousands) as I tasted my way around the mammoth Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City, where the Summer Fancy Food Show was held this week. It’s similar to the National Restaurant Association’s show that takes place in Chicago in May, but here the attendees are mostly retailers rather than restaurateurs.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t takeaways for restaurant operators. Over two days, I sampled wares from 2,730 exhibitors and had a fine time filling my belly (really, overfilling) with chocolate, cheese, ice cream and hot sauce, not to mention pate, bacon, cookies and ethnic foods from far and wide. It was all for a good cause: to share the 10 hottest trends in the specialty sector; trends that may help restaurant operators in their purchasing strategies and menu development. After all, 20 percent of specialty foods are now sold to the foodservice sector, according to the Specialty Food Association’s stats, for use as ingredients in dishes and drinks or stocked as grab-and-go items for sale. Here’s what’s happening on the other side.
1. The heat is on
Sriracha was the “it” hot condiment of the past couple of years, showing up on menus in everything from sub sandwiches to barbecued ribs. There were plenty more sriracha line extensions at the show, including sun-dried tomato ketchup, sea salt, tortilla chips, cheese straws, meat rubs, horseradish mustard and popcorn, all incorporating the fiery red sauce. There also was green sriracha made with serrano chilies, plus several other types of peppers emerging in products to scorch taste buds. Some examples: apple ghost chili salt caramels and ghost pepper barbecue sauce; Hatch chile pesto and Hatch chile popcorn; bird’s eye chili hot sauce; Hungarian goathorn peppers in brine; mango-ginger habanero sauce; and banana pepper mustard.
2. Chips with a different crunch
Perhaps inspired by the demand for healthier, baked snacks, there were plenty of crunchy alternative chips on the show floor. Packaged chips labeled as chickpea, quinoa, sprouted multigrain zatar, spicy falafel, kale and chia, popped cassava and pink pomegranate filled the aisles. All these new-age chips have the added enticement of gluten-free credentials. Served with a bowl of salsa or hummus instead of the standard tortilla chips or pita bread, they are a differentiator.
3. Vegetables go undercover
Kale and quinoa chips seem like a no-brainer—these two “healthy halo” ingredients are soaring on QSR and fast-casual menus. Restaurant customers may be even more inclined to choose dishes with healthful ingredients when they’re cleverly and creatively disguised in more familiar foods. The popularity of kale has prompted manufacturers to integrate it into products as diverse as popcorn (which turns it green) and pizza. Also seen and tasted: a spiced beet finishing vinegar; tangy vegetable yogurts in flavors including beet, butternut squash, carrot and sweet potato; energy bars in varieties such as sun-dried tomato, basil and black olive with walnuts; seasoning blends made with eight “undercover veggies” to sprinkle on dishes; and savory teas in flavors such as tomato-mint and spinach-chive. I don’t know how much nutrition you can get from a vegetable-infused cup of tea, but food companies seem to be banking on vegetables as a way to sell product.
4. Jerky perks up
We recently reported on how jerky has been seriously upgraded from c-store meat sticks to a house-cured menu item on par with salume. As further evidence of the trend, beef jerky was on display at the show in several iterations, flavored with everything from Japanese curry to crushed chilies and dried fruits, most of it sourced from grass-fed cattle. Also to nibble was turkey jerky, wild salmon jerky and venison jerky, all with that handcrafted, housemade presentation.
5. Maple is a flavor star
Moving beyond the syrup bottle, maple was in evidence in a number of unique products. The first to catch my eye was a maple cube that can be grated to add a mellow garnish to a cheese plate, grilled chicken, fish or dessert. I also sampled maple vinegar, maple seasoning salt, maple flakes, maple barbecue sauce/glaze and maple sweet-and-sour for cocktails. Maple is an on-trend choice for those seeking a natural sweetener with a “clean” label that has a healthier image and more intriguing flavor than sugar.
6. Dry soft drinks sparkle
Speaking of sweet, artisanal soda makers are creating “dry” beverages that are light or absent on additional sugar or sweeteners. Some rely on the ingredients themselves to do the sweetening, including pineapple, jasmine, hibiscus, orange, apricot, allspice and ginger—sometimes alone and sometimes in combination. Fizzy kombucha soda—already on the menus at several health-oriented independent restaurants—in flavors such as root beer, ginger and orange, also came to my attention as alternative dry drinks. Drinking vinegars have shown up recently as an ingredient on cocktail menus. Now, green and black teas and fruity drinking vinegars sparkle as soft-drink choices, too, with producers carbonating both to drink as is or mix into cocktails.
7. South America rising
Maybe it was a reflection of World Cup fever, but countries in South America had a big presence at the Fancy Food Show. Peru—whose cuisine is among the hottest in restaurants right now—and Ecuador displayed such on-target items as quinoa, purple corn and aji peppers, while Brazil touted beverages and snacks made with acai, the country’s indigenous berry that is said to have antioxidant properties. Ethnic spirits such as pisco and cachaca appeared in cocktails at 4 p.m., near the close of the show each day.
8. Gourmet grab-and-go
To-go breakfast items and snacks are proliferating on the retail side, giving customers an alternative to stopping into a restaurant for these eating occasions—and adding ammunition to the fight for share of stomach. Breakfast bowls made with whole grains, such as quinoa, barley and oats, were marketed in both hot and cold versions. Seaweed salad in a portable cup, a tapas kit with hummus and lentil crackers and an Italian-influenced quinoa meal in a bowl were the more unusual selections, all of which would appeal to on-the-run restaurant customers.
9. Just add chia seeds
These tiny seeds qualify as a superfood, hence their addition to foods such as pretzels, cookies, chips, crackers, cereal and energy drinks. Talking to one of the vendors of a cracker enriched with chia seeds, I learned that the seeds make up for the lack of texture in gluten-free baked goods. Whatever function they perform, consumers don’t seem to mind the intrusion of these nutrient-dense black seeds to add texture and flavor to menu items, including pancakes, smoothies and chicken breading.
10. Smoke rises
Hickory and pecan wood smoldering in a barbecue pit or in-house smoker immediately sets my culinary thermostat to “Eat here.” These days, you don’t need fire to infuse food with natural smoky accents. Some of the more unusual applications I sampled—arguably inspired by chefs’ experimentation and elevation of all things smoked—included smoked chocolate chips, smoked goat cheese, smoked okra pickles, smoked olive oil and shortbread topped with smoked sea salt.