Last week, I got the chance to explore the 2016 Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco. This event is an annual trade show where small and large food companies meet to show off new products that will hit the shelves over the coming year. Unfortunately, for anyone who would want to eat all-the-samples, the event is not open to the public, you have to be a retail buyer, food distributor, or media.
Like other writers, I wanted to spot the major trends and learn about interesting new products and flavors, but, for the purpose of EIT, I also wanted to learn what companies are experimenting with culinary tourism. I wanted to identify producers that offer farm tours, factory tours, cooking classes, or do organized tastings at their storefronts or cafes. What companies are not just selling food, but offering culinary experiences and giving food lovers a way to meet the farmers and/or producers and learn what goes into the things that they eat.
Basically, while food companies were trying to sell their products to retail outlets and media, I was there to sell the gospel of culinary travel and encourage companies to find ways to offer food experiences. Sneaky, right?
Here’s where it gets a little wonky and inside baseball-y. If you’re not into that, skip ahead for the pictures of food…
The Growth of Culinary Tourism
I’m not alone in realizing that culinary tourism is important. Food and beverages are certainly a major part of travel spending and these experiences are increasingly becoming a core part of why people travel and how they decide what to see and do. According to this recent report on culinary travel , the “percentage of U.S. leisure travelers who travel to learn about unique dining experiences grew from 40% to 51% between 2006 and 2013.” Local food and wine/beer experiences increasingly drive what I look for when I travel, and I know many of you reading this feel the same.
Smart food companies know that providing behind-the-scenes food experiences promotes brand loyalty and (if they charge for the experience) can be an added revenue source, important in a time of thin profit margins for farmers and small food producers. Certainly not every small, startup food maker is in a position to expand the scope of what they are doing, but it’s something growing food companies should consider.
Travel companies and destinations also know this. For about the last year, every time I’ve talked to a regional tourism bureau about their goals for the near future, attracting culinary travelers is often high on the list. Have you noticed that lots of new wine regions are popping up in rural areas? How about the new farmers markets and multi-vendor gourmet food markets are launching in cities? Or the food, beer, and wine festivals that seem to be happening every weekend? That’s all by design, as cities and destinations are trying to attract foodie travelers and foodie spending.
The Bay Area has long led the way in culinary, food and wine tourism, so it’s no surprise that many of the local (especially Napa/Sonoma)-based food companies I met were already offering food tours and culinary experiences to the public. Here are a few other food experiences I learned about at the show:
- McEvoy Ranch – Olive oil producer offering farm tours and tasting workshops – Petaluma, CA
- David Rio SF – Chai tea producer that recently opened a Chai tea bar and cafe – San Francisco, CA
- Round Rock Honey – Honey company that offers beekeeping courses – San Francisco, CA, Redwood City, CA & Round Rock, TX
- Savannah Bee Company – Honey company that offers bee garden & hive tours at their headquarters office – Savannah, GA
- Cocoa Planet – Chocolate company that is launching a chocolate tasting bar and retail store – Sonoma, CA (Opening March 2016)
- Theo Chocolate – Chocolate factory tours – Seattle, WA
- Taza Chocolate – Chocolate factory tours – Boston, MA
- TCHO Chocolate – Chocolate factory tours – Berkeley, CA (Opening 2017)
and (last, but certainly not least)…
- Desert Farms Dairy – A camel milk producer that offers tours at their Missouri camel farms (I had no idea Americans were buying camel milk!)
At any rate, I was glad to see several companies providing a behind-the-scenes look into their products and producers and I hope to see more of these experiences opening up to travelers in coming years. In the meantime, I’ll be doing my part by talking the ear off of any food company rep that will listen…
Food Trends in 2016
As for the food trends, I was excited to see lots of global flavors and food traditions coming to the U.S. market.
- Matcha: This powdered Japanese green tea was everywhere. It’s been used in Japanese tea rituals for over 1,000 years, but it’s just recently become popular as a healthy smoothie add-in and sweets flavor. The rep from Japanese tea maker Ito En said that Sprouts Market just started carrying their culinary matcha in the baked goods section, rather than the tea section!
- Asian soups made easy: There were lots of vendors making it possible to enjoy a rich, flavorful Asian soup broth without putting in the hours (if not days!) of work that it takes to get it right. Japanese ramen, Vietnamese pho, Chinese Szechuan, and Thai tom yum and curry soups were everywhere. There was even a Japanese vendor selling fast dissolving miso paste in a squeeze bottle, allowing you to easily make one bowl at a time.
- Turmeric: Some research has come out about the many health benefits of this Indian root and it was used for lots of things, from flavoring sodas (usually alongside ginger or mint) to sprinkling on crackers.
- Drinking vinegar and kombucha: Fermented beverages like kombucha and flavored vinegar meant to be added to seltzer water or cocktails, were popular. Again, most companies were sharing the health benefits.
- Seaweed: Japanese nori and wakame seaweed are becoming more popular as a healthy snack food.
- Coconut and coconut milk: Coconut flour and coconut milk were in lots of food products as a gluten-free and vegan alternative to flour and milk. The sweetened condensed coconut milk I tried was delicious (I could have eaten a whole jar with a spoon!) and will now be my go-to ingredient when any recipe calls for that ingredient.
- Edible insects: Bugs were big at the Fancy Food Show! I spotted three different small vendors at the event selling roasted and flavored insects as a snack on its own (similar to indigenous food traditions in parts of Latin America) or making snacks foods like chips and cereal using ground cricket flour. Insects are considered a sustainable source of animal protein. You might remember that I‘m vegetarian except for bacon and bugs.
- DIY food kits: I spotted companies that make grow-your-own herb kits, grow-your-own mushroom kits, home cheesemaking kits, home beer brewing kits, and even a DIY sake kit!
- Place-based branding: Lots of producers were seeking to link consumers with the source of their foods and marketing campaigns highlighting those places.
Here are some more photos from the event...