Trade shows are strange, magical, horrible places. If you're not directly involved with the industry being promoted, they can be the most deadly boring place on earth, like the fabric store when you're a kid. (All this color and texture, but nothing to do!) But certain trade shows offer hope and dream fulfillment. Last year, The A.V. Club attended the All Candy Expo at Chicago's McCormick place and found ourselves in a magical land where candy was new and free, everyone was nice, and there were no children. (You'd be in a good mood if you sold candy for a living.) Guess what? We're going back this week!
But to prepare ourselves, and because we thought it would be fun and stomach-filling, Josh & Kyle went to the National Restaurant Association's annual convention, also held at McCormick Place and overlapping with the ACE. Larger and scarier than the All Candy Expo, the NRA show (not that NRA) features not just food-makers, but purveyors of all sorts of machines, ideas, storage products, cleaning products, and crazy shit. We spent a day there–it goes for four–and barely made it through 60 percent.
The NRA lists locally grown produce and organic produce as the second and third hottest trends (of 194) on its massive annual survey, which is nice and everything, but guess what took the No. 1 spot? Bite-size desserts, which explains why a hefty amount of the food at the NRA show seemed designed for Homer Simpson:
— Eli's offered full slices of cheesecake dipped in a chocolate shell.
— Junior's Cheesecake topped that in the innovation department with a cake/cheesecake hybrid: a center layer of cheesecake sandwiched between layers of regular, flour-based cakes, all of it encased in frosting.
— Too many varieties of bacon to name or eat without needing one of McCormick Place's wall-mounted Automated External Difibrillators.
— ConAgra Foods–owners of everything from Pam spray to Manwich to Van Camp's and more–offered Biscuit & Gravy Sticks, these fried rectangular bars filled with a biscuit-like substance and sausage gravy, which practically guaranteed a 500-point increase in cholesterol. Also available: a similar bar with baked potatoes and fixins inside. All of this was served under a banner for ConAgra sub-brand Gilroy Foods, which proclaimed "health & wellness."
— ConAgra also offered the Macatini: macaroni and cheese topped with beef brisket soaked in Manwich sauce. Because why the hell not, America? Why the hell not?
Surveys be damned: There was nothing organic nor made from produce at the sprawling, packed J&J; Snackfoods booth, where expo-goers gorged on churros, funnelcake, frozen novelties, biscuits, pretzels, Icees and Icee Bits–which looked like Dippin' Dots, but J&J; representatives pointedly noted they were not like Dippin' Dots. They were essentially frozen, balled Icees. We skipped those for the Icee in traditional form–Josh opted for a Jones Cream Soda flavor, which tasted like slushy cotton candy.
Perhaps the champion of the NRA was Dietz & Watson, whose sandwich-making stations were staffed by friendly company representatives dishing out half a dozen varieties of lunchmeat, cheese, and condiments–particularly condiments. Their Wasabi Mustard was an awesome idea, but it tasted like pure horseradish with green food coloring. It nearly blew Kyle's head off, sending two successive concussions through his nasal cavity. (We advise sticking to brown deli mustard or going very easy on the green stuff. There was also a chipotle variety, but we didn't get a chance to try it.)
Another champion of the expo: Vienna Beef, who offered hot dogs and mini dipped pastrami sandwiches. The latter tasted like pure salt in beef form. Speaking of salt, the Himalayan Pink Food Salt company was selling bricks of its eponymous salt, which it says contains 84 minerals, far more than your white-man's salt. And it's versatile; the booth was decorated with salt sculptures, salt lamps, and the pink stuff in other forms.
All of this boils down to one fact: None of the concession areas at McCormick Place is making any money during this convention. Everything they serve is available for free on the massive convention floor. One of the vendors we saw near the convention floor wasn't even open. What's the point?
That NRA survey listed "energy drink cocktails" as eighth hottest item, and most signs at the expo pointed to the continued reign of the energy beverage. Some young ladies wore tight clothes advertising something called Alcohol Killer, "an innovative non-alcoholic beverage that enhances the body's natural detoxification process." Citrus flavored and carbonated, it's basically designed to minimize or eliminate your hangover, as indicated by its tagline, "Make AK The Last Drink Of The Night." Surprisingly, it's not loaded with caffeine and taurine, but a blend of spring water, L-Asorbic Acid, Thiamin, Pyridexine, Niacin, carbs, citric acid, and "natural extracts" (sambucus nigra, cybogon citrates, and ß-glucan).
Speaking of scantily clad women, a quick aside: Where would the expo world be without them? No one's gonna pay attention to your grease-filtering machine–but put a buxom blonde 20-year-old out there in a short skirt and tight T-shirt? The world will at least slow down as it passes your booth.
Using that method as a central business model was the Tilted Kilt, a "pub & eatery" looking for franchisees. Their literature proclaims their "fun pub experience… sets us apart from our competition." Fun pub experience = "beautiful servers wearing short and sexy plaid skirts with matching halter tops" and a bunch of TVs. Oh, and the food: The "unique and upscale" menu features Drunken Clams, Sloppy Jane sandwiches and Signature Chicken Wings.
Anyway, back to the drinks. Pepsi had a giant stand, the Dr Pepper/Snapple group had one too, but only Coca-Cola offered drinks and Guitar Hero. Coke served a variety of flavors of its namesake beverage, "healthy" Minute Maid smoothies, and various Icee concoctions–Josh opted for a Fanta Vanilla Icee, but tossed it after a couple of sips.
EQUIPMENT & CONTRAPTIONS
The Odor Eater
When not bombarded by food, we were bombarded by items to make food service and preparation easier and more fun: a mixer the size of a really fat guy, giant ovens, grease recyclers, cookbooks. One booth offered an amazing machine that will make sushi chefs cry: You put in the rice, seaweed, and filling, and it rolls up the maki for you. No fuss, no muss. (And the California Rolls were pretty good, if a little soulless.)
Some vendors hoped you'd buy their trivia system for your "watering hole" or if you weren't a bar owner, they hoped you'd tell the proprietor of your favorite "watering hole" how much fun their game would be to play at their "watering hole." The best game we saw, though, was a giant football player that holds out a ball, which you then kick as hard as you can, into his nuts. Because there couldn't be a better match than drunk people and kicking–well, maybe punching. Good thing the same company offered a punching-bag version.
Elsewhere, a booth filled with extremely creepy animatronic characters beckoned. When Josh got close to an old cowboy, it said, "Hey Josh, c'mon over and get your picture taken with me!" If he were 6 years old, Josh would have shit himself.
Other odd bits of gear:
— Sauce bowls specially shaped to accommodate chicken wings–their extra-wide middles allowed entire wings to be dunked horizontally.
— Wet-floor signs that blew out air to dry the very wet floors they cautioned against.
— A company called Wet Towel International. Guess what they sell?
— Virtual bowling and skeeball–takes as much space as a real bowling or skeeball lane, but with less fun!
But now we've got our game up for tomorrow, and the All Candy Expo. We'll be reporting about all the latest developments in sugar and salt (it's not just candy anymore!), bringing you colorful photos and exciting Taste Test items. And probably some of those diabetes tester strips.