Every May, two trade shows hold court at Chicago’s signature convention center, McCormick Place. This year, the 93rdAnnual National Restaurant Association, Hotel-Motel Show (and the 5thAnnual International Wine, Spirits & Beer Event) took place on May 5-8. More than 1,900 exhibitors and 61,000 registered attendants from all 50 states and more than 100 countries sampled some of the most innovative and trend-setting foods and beverages in the restaurant and foodservice industry.

A few noticeable trends were miniature and single-serving desserts. White Toque, known as a new world of a frozen and specialty food company, promoted a line of individual desserts: Gianduja Moose Cake, a shortbread topped with creamy Gianduja ganache and crispy chocolate. Gianduja is a sweet chocolate containing about 30% hazelnut paste. White Toque also featured a Chocolate Banana Delight version (featuring crumbled chocolate topped with banana cream and chocolate icing).

The Restaurant Show also featured many products with Southeast Asian Flavors. Regional flavors from Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore were featured in signature appetizers and main dishes.  One savory dish, for example, involved coconut milk, a novel ingredient. Tasty Bite produces a product called Malaysian Lodeh, a coconut milk stew made with carrots, onions, beans, baby corn, tomatoes, tofu, coconut milk, chilies, cornstarch sunflower oil, sugar, yeast, celery, soy sauce, lemon grass, ginger, salt, garlic, basil and spices.

For over 30 years, CJ Foods has been a distributor of Korean food products. The company introduced a line of barbecue marinades and cooking sauces under its private label brand, CJ Bibigo. Flavors range from the standard original to pineapple to hot and spicy.

Ingredients aside for the moment, the issue of sustainability was prevalent at the National Restaurant Association Show. Hundreds of exhibitors took steps to inform attendees about the origins of their products—involving everything from coffee to seafood to vegetables. The consumer wants to know where the product was grown and when and how it was processed. Talks with food and beverage experts—on and off the show floor—suggest that sustainability is here to stay.

The Sweets & Snacks Expo celebrated its “Sweet 16” show with record attendance at McCormick Place on May 8-10. The National Confectioners Association says the show’s 568 exhibitors drew more than 15,000 industry attendees.

One noticeable trend at this show involved “cross-overs” with manufacturers adding known savory flavors to sweet snacks and desserts. For example, Two Haute Cowgirls manufactures upscale popcorn with high-end, specialty ingredients. One of the popular products at the Sweets & Snacks Expo was the sweet bacon flavored popcorn, Have Bacon Will Travel. It’s a popcorn mixed with maple pecan buttercrunch, a hickory smoked bacon and a milk chocolate drizzles. Show organizers nominated this item as one of the expo’s top innovative new gourmet/premium products.

The three-day the expo also saw Mars Chocolate North America devote a portion of its space to Mars’ Chocolate History, a special area with presentations about the history of chocolate. Rodney Snyder, Mars chocolate history research director, led most of the presentations. The Journey of Chocolate in the Americas explored chocolate from its ancient origins—tracing back 3,500 years ago in the rainforest of Central and South America—to modern-day uses. Representatives prepared and sampled historical recipes, including 18thcentury formulas when chocolate was enjoyed as a beverage, grated into hot water and partaken at breakfast. To colonists, chocolate was a drink, not a candy bar. 

Judging by some of the notable hot chocolate options at this year's Sweets & Snacks Expo, the past looks to repeat itself. King Leo, for instance, added shaved hot chocolate with peppermint bits, and could be a sign of the consumer turning to the comforts from childhood in difficult times.

From the July 9, 2012 Prepared Foods E-dition