Troubled Times at The Fancy Food Show

The first thing I noticed was “the look”, followed by averted eyes.

I have been thinking lately that I might want to expand into products. Bottles of stuff, sea bean pickles, acorn flour, all manner of wild foraged things. With that in mind, I bought a ticket to this most recent fancy food show for $35.  My badge said “foodservice” at the bottom, something that I would later find out was very important, but more on that later.

For those who don’t know (and you could count me in that group until yesterday), the fancy food show is a trade show of all the specialty foods from around the world (there was an italy section about 20 times bigger than my apartment).  These fancy foodies take over the moscone center once a year (except last year apparently, because they forgot to book the center in time…how does that happen?).  The moscone center is HUGE, just about 2 city blocks, nestled in downtown SF, and it was packed. Everything you could imagine, fois gras, tons of flavored water (some that I swear was just water with a drop of mouthwash added), curry spreads galore, cheeses, and everything else that you might buy at a wholefoods-esque establishment.

It’s amazing to see it all together like that. To get the real idea of the scale of food being created right now in the world (and this was only the people who made expensive stuff, and were willing to pay $10,000 for the pleasure of letting people taste it)

It was seperated into two parts, the small and the big. The big side was full of…well you can probably guess, big brands. Godiva and the like (although cowgirl creamery was also over there, which really surprised me, I always thought they were more mom and pop, but I guess thats the idea).  The other side was full of companies that were a bit more boutique.  Homemade(y) looking jams and BBQ sauces and the like.

So about “the look”. I may not have even noticed “the look” if I hadn’t attended the festival with Carolina (of CMB sweets).  She’s a veteran of the show, so she gave me the inside scoop on how it all worked. It was nice having someone to help me navigate the storm of samples, and she seemed to have some inside info on most of the vendors we passed (even at a global conference, its a small world).

When you sign up for the market, you are asked a series of questions. What’s you’re business, how long in business etc..Your answers decide what is written on the bottom of your badge in large colorful letters. Some (like me) say foodservice, others say “manufaturer”, “agent”, “trade representitve” , “distributor” and so on.  What this does is give the people presenting an idea about whether or not you’re worth 30 seconds of their time. What my badge translated as was “this guy is not a distributor, and so he is going to eat your food and never give me anything”, whereas “distributor” translates into “this is a guy who is worth…maybe even 45 seconds, because if he likes my product, he’ll buy 400 million jars and I’ll be rich until the end of my days”.

So the look is like many looks, although this look is right into your soul. You don’t have to judge by dress, demeanor, smile, or any of the other cues that we’ve been taught through our lives to value, all you have to do is look at the badge. It’s like first class in a plane, sure, the guy in the full reclining padded chair with the glass of champagne and fresh baked bialy in the front may look sloppy, but you know he’s got something going on.

Now don’t get the idea that this bothered me, I liked being ignored. It makes for much better people watching when people aren’t paying attention to you.  I got to see all the plastered on smiles, faked enthusiasm and warm arm pats that salesmen employ with each other, and then I got to hear what they really though, as they walked away.

It’s interesting, seeing how the food world actually operates. In San Francisco we have this idea that people who are involved with food are all a bit different. We are defined by our passion for whatever it is we do, be it cooking, farming, foraging. This passion is what keeps up going in an industry that, lets face it, makes few people very rich.  This feeling was not in abundance at the Fancy Food Show.  It seemed that the people could have been selling anything. Trying to move 10,000 bottles of amys hoisen infused teriyaki spread doesn’t take a passion for bringing the wonders of asian cuisine to the west, but instead, takes a saavy business person. Someone who understands the finer points of shelf life, mass transport, how oil prices affect shipping costs, and what small things supermarkets hate (note: supermarkets hate hanging labels, like those ones on the side of jars of jam. Apparently they don’t stack right). Selling a popular product isn’t so much about making something that tastes good (because believe me, most of the stuff there was not delicious), but about understanding that people don’t really buy something for what’s inside.  They don’t know what your product tastes like until they’ve already bought it, and chances are if they feel good about the company, they’ll like it even if it doesn’t actually taste all that great.

Bottom line, going to the fancy food show made me not want to sell food, at least not to the masses.  I don’t want to be there, trying to push my product, schmoozing distributors for a piece of prime shelf space. When making a recipe, I don’t want to think about how rosemary doesn’t test well with Iowans in the 34-56 yr age range.  Maybe thats the real world but, at least for now, I’ll stay in the make believe land of underground dinners and foraged walks, and put off growing up just a bit longer.

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~ by foragesf on January 20, 2010.

5 Responses to “Troubled Times at The Fancy Food Show”

  1. Interesting post. I like our realistic/pragmatic view of the food industry because at the levels you describe, it’s an industry more than a craft. Wish you had mentioned your favorite finds if any. Were there any other people like you, moving in parallel food worlds? The problem with expanding your line of business and creating products is that you’d need a pretty big capacity to get started and that may exceed the possibilities of your forage walks. How do you maintain a presence on the market if your raw material varies in species, quality and quantity with the weather? I think it’s what separates agriculture from foraging.

  2. I disagree that there is a lack of passion and care about food among the Fancy Food Show vendors. True, there are some huge corporations there where the reps could just as well be selling engine parts, but I find booth after booth of people who love what they do and are passionate about their products.

    Like you, I’m an outsider to this world even after attending the show some 13 times, but my husband has built relationships with his vendors over 15 years, and that’s what business is all about. A one-time sweep through the show probably won’t reveal to you the depths of many of these relationships. As an attendee, you also have a role to play in making a relationship happen. It’s not a one-way street.

    Check out my blog post about public speaking lessons learned from the Fancy Food Show, along with recommendations for a bunch of products I enjoyed there.

    http://coachlisab.blogspot.com/2010/01/lessons-from-trade-show.html

    • My post was a first impression of the fancy food show. Im sure there are people there that are passionate about what they do (to work that hard you definitely need to be), but my reaction was to the mass production of food, and my lack of interest in doing that.

  3. i know exactly what you mean. i think tradeshows can show a very ugly side of the things we love. i recently attended Outdoor Retailer (tradeshow for outdoorswear) and vowed never to return. the Sell-Sell-Sell mentality is what i saw and what i despised.

  4. Awesome, Iso! I love your conclusion. Besides wanting to avoid all the schmoozing, isn’t it also about developing a relationship with farmers/pickers/producers? I honestly believe that the relationships we form affect the quality as well. And how can you have that if your selling to the masses through distributors?

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