Americans have a growing appetite for all things gourmet, from wild and whacky snacks to upscale takes on such everyday items as chocolate bars and hot sauce.
At least that’s the word from the Specialty Food Association, a trade group for gourmet-food producers and retailers. The organization reports that industry sales increased by 7.4% in 2021 to $175 billion. Certain categories, such as meat and cheese, are the big drivers, but there are also newer areas of growth, too: Sales of plant-based foods increased by 6% in 2021 to $7.7 billion, for example.
At the SFA’s annual Fancy Food Show at New York’s Javits Center, you can get a true, ahem, taste of the industry, with thousands of items available to sample. I visited the Big Apple show, held earlier this week, and sussed out the good, the bad and the just plain weird. Here are 10 of my key discoveries.
Tomatoes and more tomatoes
It’s not exactly as if we need an introduction to the tomato. Americans consume some 18.8 pounds each of fresh tomatoes annually — and let’s not count all the tomatoes that go into the sauce used in our prepared foods, from salsa to pizza to pasta dishes. But there’s still plenty of room for innovation. Take the Tomato Chips from Root Foods — perfect slices of “crisped” tomatoes that can be devoured like, well, chips, but are much better for you (a one-ounce portion contains 120 calories) than many other snack foods. Another winner from the show: Tomato Bliss, a company that offers tomato soups, made with heirloom varieties, that put the standard supermarket versions to shame.
Want to take your meat-free menu beyond Beyond Meat? Then consider plant-based “fish.” A number of companies are vying in this space. Good Catch is one of the most ambitious, with a lineup that includes plant-based “salmon” burgers, plant-based “crab” cakes and plant-based “tuna.” The latter, made with pea and soy proteins and chickpea flour, among other ingredients, was almost indistinguishable from the real deal when mixed in a salad.
Wine in a bag
We have wine in bottles, wine in boxes and wine in cans. So, what’s next? Wine in a bag, of course. That’s the premise behind Maivino, a company that states “great wines can come in any vessel.” Its bags contain 1.5 liters of vino (50% more than a traditional Spanish “bota”) — the equivalent of two bottles. The sips are generally of good quality, and Maivino promises the wine can stay fresh for 30 days after opening in the resealable bag.
For the budding chef (or Picasso)
Imagine a world in which you encourage your kids to play with their food. That’s the idea behind the food paints offered by a company called Noshi. In truth, they are just fruit purées or ketchup, but they’re designed so that kids can squeeze them out and decorate any number of foods. In some cases, they’re co-branded — hence, a line of Crayola edible paints.
You know Oscar Isaac from his appearances in films ranging from the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” to the recent “Star Wars” pictures. But in his other life he’s promoting a line of chimichurri sauce, appropriately called Mr. Chimi’s, that he helped create with his family. Isaac put in an appearance at the Fancy Food Show and explained to me that the cilantro-rich product comes from his Guatemalan family’s long-cherished recipe. It can be used on meats, not unlike traditional chimichurri, which is especially associated with Argentina. But it’s got a pesto-like texture and might work well with a range of foods. (Try it on pizza, advises the Mr. Chimi’s website.)
Your cold cuts just got boozy
Olli Salumeria is a California-based producer that has shown the world America can stand side by side with Italy in the cold-cuts department. It produces a range of charcuterie, from Genoa-style salami to pepperoni, but its bourbon-flavored salami is what really got my attention. The whiskey brings a subtly sweet flavor to the mix — like a glass of good bourbon. The product is expected to be on the market soon. There’s no actual alcohol in the salami, I was told.
Brand extensions get bizarre
Some companies are getting really creative in how they expand their brands or license their names. Jelly Belly, the jelly-bean folks beloved by Ronald Reagan, are now behind a line of flavored sparkling water. (And guess what — its fizzy drinks do taste like its beans.) Even weirder: Dr. Bronner’s, the soap brand, has some chocolate bars to sell you. (It all has to do with the company’s ties to African farmers — and, no, the chocolate doesn’t taste like soap.)
Could chicken “chips” become the next pork rinds? That’s the premise behind Flock, a brand built around fried chicken skins. The product is all about the crunch and the salty-fatty taste of said skins. In other words, it’s an elevated — or at least fowl-minded — version of a porcine treat.
We all scream for (instant) ice cream
Imagine a machine similar to the K-Cup coffee maker, but, instead of brewing java, it produces gelato and ice cream. That’s the idea behind Solato, the company whose namesake capsule-based machine is already making its way into the business and office space. Think mint chocolate chip at the push of a button. The next frontier? Naturally, a home version — the Solato team says one could be available by the end of 2023.
Pickle-flavored cotton candy
It’s no joke: You can now get your dill pickle in the form of the childhood treat, courtesy of Chocolate Storybook, an Iowa confectioner that has started to build its reputation around flavored varieties of cotton candy, traditional and not-so-traditional. I loved the pickle one (trust me, it works), but missed out on sampling the jalapeño. There’s always next year’s Fancy Food Show.