I accompanied my daughter to the Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim last week and was blown away by the enormous array of products, people, tastes and sounds. By day 3 I was operating on sensory overload and couldn’t coherently digest much more, literally or metaphorically.
I have been to food shows before – the National Restaurant Show in 2011 (and will go again this year) as well as the KeHE Specialty Food Show Chicago 2011. But this convention was by far the most remarkable, mind-blowing experience on earth – it is a must for anyone involved in any aspect of the natural foods and products business. The world of natural products is a far cry from the stressful, politically fraught, backstabbing work environment in which I toiled from 2004-2011. I met some of the nicest folks at this show and whether any of these encounters translate to business deals in PR or brokering is secondary. My daughter already has an impressive clientele list for whom she does demos and independent sales – and boy was I impressed with her networking skills.
The primary purpose of this particular blog is to sing the laurels of the few food products, experiences, and people who stood out in this massive show. Selecting what/whom to highlight was no easy feat in the vast sea of 3,000 exhibitors and an endless bounty of samples. Naturally, I gravitated towards food products for which I possess a degree of expertise - thanks in great part to my dad – namely chocolates and cheeses … as well as potato chips and honey.
I was practically jumping for joy after tasting the Fromage Blanc Fresh Farmer’s Cheese from Bellwether Farms. Owners Diana and Liam Callahan got used to seeing us – this was one booth that we returned to every day. There are not enough superlatives to describe the exquisite taste and creamy texture of this wonderful cheese. I lived in the Netherlands nearby Gouda, home of some of the best cheese in the world – and I have tasted many high-end cheeses over the years. Fromage Blanc, however, is the BEST cheese I have ever tasted of any variety – hands down, no doubt. It is a shame that it is currently only distributed on the West Coast, but as Diana explained to me, the limited shelf life of these delicate cheese products inhibits widespread national distribution. Luckily the cheeses can be purchased online. Nice people living in a gorgeous part of the country producing wonderful cheeses.
Potato Chips, Potato Crisps - Brit Style - a Taste for All Seasons
Chips are a real weakness for me going back to my childhood when my mother admonished me for eating too many Jays. I became a potato chip aficionado of sorts when I left Chicago – sampling East Coast brands like Wise during college and then European brands when I lived abroad in the early 1980s. But that was then and this is now – there has been an explosion of creative, gourmet, natural potato chips in the last decade. I seek out the unusual flavors and have a penchant for really crisp, crunchy chips with folds and bubbles. I don’t like when the flavor is overpowering and this tends to be the case with some brands – even natural varieties.
I liked the intriguing flavors offered by Mackie’s of Scotland. Flamegrilled Aberdeen Angus was my favorite, but Ronnie Wilson encouraged me to try the Haggis and Cracked Black Pepper. I have never tried Haggis so I wasn’t sure what to expect. When looking at the ingredients of these crisps online, I was relieved to see that there is no sheep’s pluck! I asked for samples to take with but they didn’t have any – they said perhaps the last day, but things got too hectic to circle back.
Tyrrells Hand Cooked English Crisps, another UK brand was giving away single-size (25 gram) bags of the Lightly Sea Salted and Sea Salt & Vinegar chips outside the exhibit hall. When I stopped by their main booth on Saturday I received four full-sized bags, but I gave the Mature Cheddar & Chives and Sea Salt & Cracked Black Pepper to my sister Janet. I simply could not pack all four bags in my carry-on bag. Tyrrells wins the award for the most creative marketing/packaging design ever used on potato chips as well as the best website design for a food product – no prize, just my undying admiration! As a lifelong antique lover/collector and history buff, I really dig their cool use of vintage photos and clever Eccentrics page. Now the challenge is to find these delectable, delightful chips in the U.S.
A Creative, Elegant Twist on Popcorn
There were several popcorn companies, but the one that stood out from the crowd was 479 Popcorn with its super elegant, beautiful packaging and sexy flavors. I asked Founder Jean Arnold about the name and she said she came upon the discovery that 479 degrees Fahrenheit is the optimal temperature for popping corn. I am not at all surprised that this popcorn has generated a media buzz … and without the services of a PR company according to Jean. Another vendor came up to Jean and asked what her secret was to attaining such impressive media coverage – most of this arose initially from the social media buzz created among devotees/consumers and this word-of-mouth praise led to mainstream media taking notice. Take a look at the elegant packaging and creative flavor offerings. This company is cutting-edge and very hip – and not surprisingly, based in San Francisco, a gastronomical paradise.
A Chocoholic’s and Honey-Lovers Dream Come True
I must admit that I behaved myself at this show and sampled far less chocolate than the norm for me. I love honey and like to try unusual varieties, so that coupled with the sweet rush from chocolate sampling curbed my enthusiasm a bit. So what stood out in the crowd? One of my favorite vendors combined honey with chocolate – Queen Bee Gardens offered up incredibly delicious Honey English Toffee and Honey Pralines. They were giving out generous samples on site but I didn’t bring any of these candies home. The WineTimeBars created by ResVez are delicious and super healthy. Featuring the finest ingredients and Resveratol, these bars are truly unique, packing the equivalent potency of more than 50 glasses of red wine! Given that I am not a wine drinker but am an admitted chocoholic who is trying to reform, these bars get my personal thumbs-up. I tried several types of honey – the best were the raw and Manuka honeys. The Tea Room offered up really cool fusion chocolate, coupling teas with organic dark, milk, and white chocolates. Among my favorites were Milk Chocolate Bar Infused with Honeybush Caramel Tea, Dark Chocolate Bar Infused with Raspberry Rooibos Tea, and Milk Chocolate Bar Infused with Bedouin’s Mint Tea. They had the most colorful booth of any chocolate vendor.
And Then the Rest of the Smörgåsbord