It's only possible to enjoy Halloween trick-or-treating until a certain age. Eventually, homeowners start shunning supplicants as too old. And even the most self-indulgent trips to the local convenience store can't make up for Halloween's surprise-filled random hauls, not to mention the lure of free candy. Trick-or-treating is just something people grow out of, never to return.
Except for people who work in the candy field, for whom Halloween shows up in Chicago in mid-September, bringing with it sugar comas and intense joys. The All Candy Expo—held at the massive McCormick Place from Sept. 17-19—offers a wonderfully weird world of sweetness inside the strange confines of a convention center. Only industry folks and lucky members of the fourth estate can enter—signs strictly forbid anyone under 16, even babies. And behind those gray walls lies glory. (Plus, oddly, Gilmore Girls' Lauren Graham, who was there with her dad, a candy-industry lobbyist.)
Hundreds of vendors bring their wares to tempt buyers into carrying their products. Everybody from the big boys—Hershey's, Mars, etc.—to the tiniest mom-and-pop operation yearning to tell the world about Christian-themed candy hearts or fruit-flavored ick shows up. It wasn't just fun free samples and girls dressed as Starlight Mints, though; some serious wheeling and dealing goes on at the All Candy Expo. A guy trying to launch his gluten-free gummis and Crocodile Hunter-branded products told us that that's exactly why all of these smaller candymakers come—to launch into the big time. The holy grail? A distribution deal with a big chain store, or even an exclusive with somebody like Wal-Mart. Candy is big business, and also delicious.
Our holy grail was the Razzberry M&M, but it turns out Mars hadn't brought any. (We were instead informed that they were already in stores.) Mint M&Ms will be coming to help promote the new Indiana Jones movie, and next year will see the release of Wild Cherry M&Ms. Holy shit.
Competition is, of course, fierce. Making an impression seems impossible when there's so much to see: international candy, from German chocolate to Saudi Arabian wafer bars to Asian candy with awesome packaging ("A happy mouth tingling fruity!"); cookies with drawings you color with flavored markers; PMS-themed chocolate; Jeff Foxworthy meat products and Dale Earnhart Jr. candy bars; candy G-strings (and matching bras and suspender belts and cock rings and "posing pouches" for guys); gummi everything (no Venus de Milo, though); lollipops with real bugs in them; caffeine- and/or taurine-enhanced jellybeans, chips, sprays, and gum; various Christian-themed pieces; chocolate in all varieties, from sugar-free to chai; something called "Pickle In A Pouch"; and more. And then some more after that.
Just three hours into this bonanza, the old specter of Halloween reared its head—tummy sickness. But that didn't stop us from finding—and bringing to you—an assortment of new goodies, from bizarre to awesome to awesomely bizarre. Some weird items seem to have no hope of ever finding a market; others seem like slam dunks. We offer a glimpse at some of both below.
The breakout star of ACE (based on the amount of advertising), Reeses Whipps feature that familiar orange packaging and big ol' logo to indicate that the familiar taste—peanut butter and chocolate—is imminent. The package screams "40% less fat" and quietly says "light and fluffy peanut flavored nougat." Inside, it's a bit like Reeses' Fast Break, mixed with a Three Musketeers consistency. Good, but not necessarily worth repeating.
Cinnabon Cinnamon Caramel Pecan Cluster
Cinnabon got famous for exactly one thing: oversized cinnamon rolls that cause people to fall asleep immediately after consumption, often on food-court tables. But with a recognized brand comes great responsibility, including marketing your name on other products. Cinnabon's foray into candy includes a couple of different "clusters," so named because they're essentially Goo Goo Clusters with cinnamon flavoring. The caramel-pecan version is delicious, but not as delicious as an actual Cinnabon. (And no extra goopy topping is available for purchase.)
Pop Rocks 2-Piece Mega Bar
Two great tastes that taste Ummm Was anybody looking to combine a basic milk-chocolate bar with the bursting power of Pop Rocks? It's advertised as "real milk chocolate with a kick," which is basically true. It "melts on your tongue and then POPS in your mouth"—that's also true. But it isn't terribly tasty, even when you add in some Dr Pepper to give it extra oomph.
Soda Pop Top
The real Cinderella story of this year's All Candy Expo could belong to three sisters from Tennessee who—along with their dad—came up with a way to increase sugar delivery and flavor: The Soda Pop Top. It's essentially a lollipop that screws onto a water or soda bottle, allowing drinkers to taste the liquid and solid simultaneously. It's kind of insane, but the kind of insane that it's easy to imagine every 12-year-old in the world enjoying.
Ghirardelli Prestige Bars
What makes Ghirardelli's new line of chocolate bars prestigious? Apparently their size: The 3.5-ounce Prestige Bars are a half-ounce bigger than the old ones, which translates into roughly double the amount of caramel, raspberry, or mint filling. And that pretty much rules. They also come in solid milk or dark chocolate (60 percent cacao), but the big payoff lies in the filled bars.[pagebreak]
These Dale Earnhardt Jr.-branded bars exist for one reason: to extend the Earnhardt brand into the lucrative snack-foods market. And they taste like it. The simple caramel- or peanut-butter-filled chocolate bars aren't bad, just bland. And won't they melt like crazy at a NASCAR track?
Jelly Belly Bean Boozled jelly beans
Jelly Belly apparently enjoyed screwing with people with its Harry Potter-branded beans—which included flavors like Earwax, Dirt, Vomit, and more—because it's revisiting the gross-out theme with its new Bean Boozled line. Ten beans, 20 flavors. Each can be delicious (Top Banana) or disgusting (Pencil Shavings)—they're identical, so people can't tell them apart. Other nasty flavors: Skunk Spray, Rotten Egg, Ear Wax, Booger, Baby Wipes, Toothpaste, Vomit, Moldy Cheese, and Black Pepper. Pencil Shavings and Baby Wipes aren't all that bad, but Moldy Cheese and Vomit are brutal. We didn't have it in us to try more after that.
Too Tarts spray candy
Have American children gotten so lazy that they no longer want to chew their candy? Maybe, because candy sprays were all over McCormick Place. Innovative Candy Concepts had the biggest display and the largest line of spray candies, including its Melted Ice Cream line (blueberry, banana split, and strawberry). The experience is like using a sweet Binaca. They don't taste bad, but there's something unsatisfying about spraying candy into your mouth—like, "Okay, now what?" Um, maybe spray it again?
Sugar-free chocolate: the non-alcoholic beer of the candy industry. Landies offers a full line of "TRULY SUGAR FREE" and organic chocolate and cookies. Sure, there's a national obesity epidemic, but there's a reason chocolate has sugar.
Ever wish you could eat sand art? Well, this is America, where no snack idea goes ignored: Pucker Powder lets you create "candy art" with tubes (6, 12, 18, or 34 inches) of brightly colored sour powder from special dispensers. What a country!
Yet another entry into the too-strong-breath-mint market. How's this one different? Um, it's shaped like a wrench and comes in a wrench-shaped tin. ("It's the only mint shaped like a wrench!" the hawkers earnestly stated.) At last, the candy industry taps into the lucrative mechanics' market.
Mango Con Chile Gummys Muy Muy!
Mexican company Alyrka Snacks is introducing a line of fruit snacks and gummies to the U.S. The secret ingredient? Chili seasoning. Spicy candy may sound odd to people from El Norte, but it's an up-and-coming scene: Swiss chocolatier Lindt introduced a delicious cherry-chili dark chocolate at this year's convention. Muy Muy's mango-chile snack tastes surprisingly good at first, but it also has a you're-gonna-regret-this aftertaste.
Candy-filled pens that write on paper made of candy. It works about as well as you'd think.
Since its inception, candy has reflected the zeitgeist—just look at candy-filled pagers and cell phones. At this year's event, Candy Planet introduced Candy Grillz, which replaces the jewels in the ostentatious dental jewelry with candy. Take note, Paul Wall. And begin purchasing third homes, dentists.
Kids like cookies. Kids like coloring books. Can you say synergy? Color-A-Cookie combines them with drawings on top of flat cookies, which kids color with markers that offer different tastes, smells, and colors. Candy with elaborate, photorealistic graphics are big, too: Several vendors displayed them at this year's event. Really, what better way to say "happy anniversary" than with a chocolate heart topped with a photo of someone special?
• Bears, worms, and rings
• Chocolate-covered bears
• Lunch boxes
• X-ray fish
• Mexican dinner
• Quarter burger
• Breast-cancer ribbons
It was just like trick-or-treating when we were young—more candy out there than we could possibly pick up. By mid-afternoon, the smallish paper carrying bags the convention had given us (and required us to use) were full, and we hadn't even hit the "Treasure House": the free-sample room where the business façade drops, and it's just grab, grab, grab—which we did, until our bags nearly burst. (There was a bin full of Take 5s!) Carrying several pounds and tens of thousands of calories' worth of candy, we headed back to the office, where we were greeted like heroes. Too bad All Candy Expo, like Halloween, only comes once a year.