Fancy foods make debuts Serious sampler: Product expansions outweighed innovations at relatively tame specialty food event.

January 31, 1996|By Joan Cirillo | Joan Cirillo,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SAN FRANCISCO -- "Did you taste that frozen tea yogurt?" asked gourmet supermarket owner Joel Levy after walking the aisles of the Fancy Food show here. "I called home and told them to get those old yogurt things (soft serve machines) out of the warehouse and get them fixed."

Botanica, a refreshing line of nondairy, no-fat-or-cholesterol iced herbal infusions, mistaken for frozen yogurt because of its creaminess, was causing a stir among the 25,000 buyers, brokers and distributors sampling food at the 21st annual winter show for the specialty food and gourmet trade.

Buyers swarmed around the California-based Greater Pacific Foods Co.'s booth, many disappointed to learn that the 26-calorie-an-ounce treat will only be available for soft-serve machines in food service, not home use, next month. In a year where good-for-you products seemed to push out the more eccentric, where the atmosphere was more subdued and businesslike than years past, the buzz about this latest twist on tea was noticeable.

"The winter show is a little bit quieter than the summer show," said Ronald Tanner, spokesman for the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, which sponsors the annual show on the West Coast in winter and the East Coast in summer.

Despite the organization's reports of 4,000 new gourmet products in the last year, a 14 percent jump in booth space and 16 percent attendance boost over the last San Francisco show, the usual playfulness and eccentricities of the gourmet industry seemed lacking.

"Very, very serious," said exhibitor Mary Schaheen of the show's tone. "Line extension, it's all about line extension," added this chief executive officer of the Arizona-based Desert Rose Foods, a Southwestern confections and condiment company with sales offices in Maryland.

Instead of being assaulted by dozens of oddball new products, buyers this year were greeted by a steady growth of cottage industry products or expansions of successful product lines (line extension) reflecting the value-conscious '90s and demands for convenient, easy, healthy and more flavorful foods

A few innovations stood out. The Save the Children Gourmet Goodies Collection was launched at the show by the Saddle Brook, N.J., marketing and importing firm of Liberty Richter. The line of chocolate bars, snacks and holiday calendars with the Save the Children logo will appear in stores this fall and for private and corporate sales. Ten percent of all sales will go to the international development and relief organization.

Of other "line extension" efforts by the show's 800 domestic and 200 international companies, Mr. Roberts noted: "Manufacturers put a different flavor in the products, make the texture different or make the size different."

So what's hot in gourmet foods? The same as in the marketplace in general. Among the 25,000 products at the for-the-trade-only show were low-fat, low-cholesterol, and more organic foods; more fruit and vegetable products; a continued Mediterranean influence with beans, grains and pastas, particularly ready-prepared with seasonings and vegetables; ethnic foods, notably an increase in convenience Indian foods and sauces with Asian flavors like lemongrass and ginger; new generations of flavored oils and vinegars, mayonnaise and salad dressings, including lots of nonfat and low-fat versions; fruit and vegetable salsas and spices; and beverages, from coffee and the ever-expanding tea market to unusual fruit drinks.

"We're seeing more and more natural foods at the Fancy Food Show," said Shannon Loch, a West Coast specialty foods buyer. "This year, you're definitely seeing a profusion of fruit, whether it's drinks or jam. Again, that reflects the all-natural thing."

"I think people trick themselves into thinking they're getting their five fruits a day this way," said Ms. Schaheen of Desert Rose. Reflecting a repackaging trend to smaller and easy-to-make and use portions, the 20-year-old company brought out a "value pack" collection of four-ounce salsas. "It has to be convenient," said Ms. Schaheen, adding that buyers kept looking for ready-to-go meal products.

New show products, many from cottage industries and entrepreneurs, should begin to appear on market shelves in coming weeks. Expect to see new types of infused oils and vinegars, such as the flavored sunflower oils by Prairie Thyme of Kansas City or infused grapeseed oil and blood orange vinegar from Cuisine Perel of San Rafael, Calif.

Mayonnaise, following mustard's lead, is rapidly becoming the next condiment to get an upgrade and flavor boost. (Napa Valley Kitchens, creators of the successful Consorzio flavored oils and vinegars, debuted the Consorzio Mayo flavored spreads at the New York food show in July.)

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