If you could sum up this year’s Fancy Food Show in one word, it would be this: No. No gluten, no dairy, no animal products, no soy, no carbon footprint, no waste. No kidding. The Fancy Food Show, now in its 70th year, returned to New York City this summer after a two-year hiatus because of the pandemic.
Over 1,800 producers, entrepreneurs, chefs, farmers, bakers, cheesemongers, fishmongers, scientists, activists, and importers exhibited their wares across the equivalent of six football fields at the Javits Center. It’s the flagship event of the Specialty Food Association. Founded in 1952, the SFA is the leading trade organization for the $175 billion specialty food industry. Buyers for major chains and small grocery markets, restaurants, and food service businesses come in droves to survey products from both new and established makers from around the world.
And it was indeed a global marketplace. Beyond cheeses and pastas of Italy, olive oils from Greece, and dumplings and noodles from all across Asia, there were salts from Iceland, Africa, and Oregon, incredible cheddars from Wales, 2Tang green tea chocolate from Indonesia, chutney from Afghanistan, and Caribbean ketchups of all levels of tanginess and heat. Speaking of, heat is, well . . . hot. Hot peppers from around the world are arriving here in salsa machas, rich, oil-based crunchy salsas from Veracruz; sambals from Indonesia; Saba’s Awaze sauces from Ethiopia; and beyond.
Vegan, once the chosen diet of hippies and evangelical health nuts, is the new vegetarian. As vegan foods have become increasingly mainstream, the creativity of packaged products has increased exponentially. Familiar meat substitutes like tofu and seitan are out. Look for chickpea yogurt from fast-growing brand CHKP, banana-based condiments that taste like cured meat from Disturbingly Delicious Foods, and Hope & Sesame’s variety of sesame milks.
While plant-based beef has ascended from novelty to juggernaut (see: White Castle’s Impossible meat sliders), vegan chicken and fish haven’t quite been perfected. But that’s changing. Thoughtful and intriguing seafood-inspired products are coming from companies like Current Foods, which makes alt-tuna and smoked salmon from algae, koji, bamboo, radish, and potato. Peas, chickpeas, lentils, soy, fava beans, and navy beans form the foundation of plant-based seafood from Good Catch, which just added breaded products, like salmon burgers and crab cakes, to its line of seasoned, remarkably flaky tuna.
But as visible as plant-based foods were, they don’t necessarily mark a sea change in lifestyle across the United States.
“The plant-based trend has slowed down. I think there’s been a shift in consumer thinking,” said Bill Lynch, president of the SFA. “We’ve always had plant-based, but consumer awareness really started to pick up probably half-dozen years ago. There was a lot of excitement and demand around getting your hands on anything plant-based. But there’s been a shift in mindset. In some cases, plant-based foods can be overly processed. Consumers are being more particular. Now there’s a trend to simpler and cleaner ingredients.”
There’s a new frontier in beverages. Where once kombucha was the darling of the specialty food world, it appears that the race is on to find the Next Great Thirst-quencher. Boston entrepreneurs were in on the game. Lei Nichols, a member of CommonWealth Kitchen, a nonprofit food incubator in Dorchester, was there showcasing Wisemouth Tea, her hand-brewed products that take cues from ancient Chinese medicine. Many drinks reflect the clean-ingredient trend Lynch identified. Bee’s Water, an organic, only-slightly sweet honey-infused drink inspired by Middle East traditions; Shrubbley, a Vermont-made canned carbonated shrub; Big Easy Tepache, a fermented Mexican soda; and sparkling matcha are each worth keeping an eye out for.
Perhaps a signal of people longing — or needing — to be anywhere but home, there were a number of nutritious foods designed for people on the go, like freeze-dried fruits and veggies in snazzy packages from Super Garden, a Lithuanian company, powdered kombucha, and vacuum-packed, liquid-free marinated veggies from Poshi, in Peru. Convenience is key for busy parents when it comes to mealtime. There was squeezable pancake mix and novelty squeezable fruit preserves. CommonWealth Kitchen member Jenn Bingham displayed Little Pickins, thoughtfully packaged, pre-cooked, frozen veggie meal bites.
According to Lynch, this year saw a remarkable number of new companies showing their wares, particularly by women and people of color. This year’s show saw more than 300 new companies participate, more than there’s been in Lynch’s 20-plus years with the company. He chalks it up to a nation stuck at home for two years.
“It feels like there was a birth of a new generation of food entrepreneurs during the pandemic. A lot of us had time at home, perhaps in the kitchen. People experimented with recipes or maybe dusted off an old cookie recipe,” he said. “People lost their jobs and had an opportunity to reevaluate things and it seemed to inspire a lot of people to pursue their passion.”