I love the Specialty Food Association’s Fancy Food Show. I’ve attended both the Summer and Winter exhibitions, in New York and San Francisco, respectively, each year since Upstart Food Brands launched. It’s the one trade event I simply do not miss.

Not only do I have clients that exhibit and attend, it’s a tremendous opportunity to learn; to gain insight on flavor trends, fresh product ideas, new packaging innovations, and a variety of other food and beverage industry concerns. With a business laser-focused on helping food entrepreneurs grow their businesses, the better I can keep my finger on the industry pulse, the more informed my work can be.

I make sure to walk the entire show multiple times (as the blisters on my feet can attest!). I’m always interested to see which products win Sofi Awards. I walk through the various showcases extensively, I talk to a LOT of people, and I take a bunch of notes.

My initial plan was to write this post as a trend piece. When you take a lot of notes over several successive years, you start seeing patterns. A variety of sources, however, including the Specialty Food Association, already write extensively about the trends that they see at the show. Additionally, even though this particular show is a great industry barometer, without broader context, the overall picture is, at best, incomplete. A meaningful, big-picture trend analysis is best served in other long form formats.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of great insights to be gained, so I’ll share my top 10 takeaways from the 2019 Winter Fancy Food Show here (in no particular order):

1. Cauliflower is exploding!

Cauliflower (which, has actually been a favorite veggie of mine since I was a kid) has been gaining popularity for a while now, but seeing all of the new applications for cauliflower at this show reaffirms that it’s not just a passing fad. Food companies are capitalizing on a growing number of health-conscious consumers who are trying to reduce carbs by replacing flour, rice, and other simple carbs with gluten-free, low-carb, plant-based alternatives. More than just riced cauliflower and cauliflower-based baking mixes, this show featured grab and go items, tortillas, pretzels and other snacks, and pizza crust. This seems like the beginning of a complete cauliflower explosion.

2. Great packaging design still stands out

I’m a sucker for great design, and there was no shortage of it at this show. For obvious reasons, I’ll exclude my own wonderful clients’ packaging, and focus on the other brands I found impressive. Here are a few of my favorites:

Seattle Chocolate

As an illustrator myself, I’m always drawn (excuse the pun) to quality illustration. Seattle Chocolate has a broad variety of products, but this particular line of wintery designs is quite striking. In an industry with tremendous competition, and a lot of great design, this is a distinct look that really caught my eye.

Truff Hot Sauce

Truffle hot sauce. That alone should be enough to set them apart. Clearly, though, they understand that competing in the saturated hot sauce market requires more than just an intriguing product. Their simple, sophisticated design and unique geometric cap gives Truff an elegant look that really stands out.

Lotus Foods Rice

Lotus Foods Rice is a great example of how a brand can effectively communicate its mission and story through its packaging. With engaging, authentic images of rice farmers, clear callouts, and great printing, this packaging is a fresh, distinct look in a market that isn’t exactly known for great packaging or compelling story.

Routes De Terre

Sometimes you walk through the show and you happen upon something that really grabs your attention. Routes De Terre is a company located in Spain that sells truffles. Their canned truffle packaging is elegant, simple, and earthy.

The Matzo Project

The Matzo Project is a brand I’ve seen for a few years, now, and I’ve always loved the illustration and overall style of their packaging. Really fun, engaging, and memorable. Sort of reminds me of Sauer Frau.

Big Country Organic Cane Sugars

I love the clean white packaging of this organic cane sugar brand called Big Country. Sophisticated look, amazing brand story, prominent callouts…the nicest looking sugar brand I think I’ve seen. At a time when sugar isn’t exactly at max-popularity, their brand positioning and narrative gives them the best possible chance to resonate with the consumer as a superior option to the competition.

3. Let them eat vegetation

My family is a microcosm of the growth of plant-based diets. My parents, two brothers, and sister-in-law, who were all once omnivores, have adopted various plant-based lifestyles. It’s made Thanksgiving dinner a whole new experience!

Beyond the increase in the number of vegan products I’m seeing at each show (and in my family’s refrigerators), I see fewer and fewer companies trying to create passable meat alternatives, and instead, developing completely new, distinctly plant-based products; products like Hippie Snacks Cauliflower Crisps, Vegan Rob’s Snacks (Beet Puffs, Spinach Puffs, etc.), Kween Granola Butter, Bitchin’ Sauces and Dips, The Amazing Chickpea Spread, and Zen Basil beverages (with basil seeds and Tulsi leaf).

4. Innovation is alive and well

The Fancy Food Show is always a place to find new and unique products, but I particularly liked a few of the innovative ideas this year:

Tulua Medidate Date Seed Coffee

Made from roasted date seeds, which are ground, brewed like coffee, and blended into a completely unique beverage experience, Tulua MediDate Date Seed Coffee drinks are unlike any product I’ve seen. My only concern is that they could have legal issues with the word coffee.

Goodlife Sea Stick Rolled and Baked Seaweed Snacks

Seaweed is packed with vitamins and minerals, and these convenient rolled, baked, and flavored seaweed sticks from GoodLife are a cool, nutritious snack.

Trois Petits Cochons Sous Vide Egg Bites

These Sous Vide egg bites are fantastic – great flavors, perfect texture, low-carb, and high in protein.

Kween Granola Butter

I mentioned Kween Granola Butter earlier in this post, but it’s worth mentioning again. This is a truly innovative product.

Victory Dance Foods Garden Granola

Victory Dance Foods Garden Granola is not like any granola you’ve likely ever had. Marketed as “juiced granola” this unique plant-based offering, with beetroot, pineapple, ginger, lemon, and apple, is one of a handful of brands that are turning the granola category on its head.

Napa Hills Vineyard Enriched Water Beverage

I’ve seen a lot of functional waters over the last few years, but Napa Hills Vineyard Enriched Water Beverage is one of my favorite products from this show. Delivering red wine benefits (resveratrol and other antioxidants – apparently, 10 times the amount found in a glass of red wine!), without the wine taste, alcohol, sugar, or calories, this refreshing beverage has a subtle, natural flavor and plenty of function.

Coombs Family Farms Maple Stream Sprayable Maple Syrup

It seems like a bit of a novelty, but it also demonstrates that even in a mature market segment like maple syrup, a 7th generation family farm can look to innovation for growth. Coombs Family Farms Maple Stream Sprayable Maple Syrup offers a fun, convenient way to dispense high-quality, organic maple syrup.

Zen Basil Beverages

This is one of those situations where you completely pass over a product as you’re walking through the enormity that is the Fancy Food Show. Fortunately, the guy in the booth asked me if I wanted a sample, so I stopped. I’m glad I did. This is one of the gems of the show. Zen Basil is a line of very unique and functional plant-based, organic, prebiotic beverages that feature basil seeds, tulsi leaf, and a variety of natural juices and flavors. With fiber, electrolytes, antioxidants, no artificial flavors, no refined sugars, and ton of other nutritional benefits, this beverage is a powerhouse. What further differentiates Zen Basil is its distinct texture. The basil seeds are similar to boba but a lot smaller.

Fire Cider

Fire Cider isn’t new. I’ve been stopping by their booth for years. So, technically, this isn’t a new innovation. However, this is a Hall of Fame Fancy Food Show product to me, and I want to make sure to give them some love. Beyond my own bias though, it is a legitimately unique product that’s stood the test of time. Fire Cider is an apple cider vinegar tonic, but it’s so much more than that. All of the ingredients are certified organic and include garlic, onions, horseradish, ginger, habanero peppers, oranges, lemons, turmeric, and raw honey. The result of their intense manufacturing process is an equally intense elixir that’s as functional and nutritious as it is brash and tasty.

5. CBD

Some companies are still a little leery of incorporating Canabidiol (CBD) into their products due to supply concerns, legal risks, and insufficient data about its effects. These apprehensions, however, aren’t stopping some companies from getting a jump on the competition. One of the notable brands is The Spice Lab, which is launching a trendy line of CBD products under the Curated Beneficial Delights brand that will include a selection of drinking vinegars, olive oils, and other products. Another brand, Engage Hemp Health sells a line of unique spice blends, both seasoned mixes and unseasoned pure hemp flower powder, that can be used to enhance popcorn, baked goods, and other foods.

6. Robust market for gut health

Fermented, pickled, prebiotic, probiotic, active cultures…”funky” fortified foods are still in high demand. From traditional products like sauerkraut and pickled veggies to trendy offerings like drinking vinegars and fermented sauces to date seed coffee and other wild creations, gut health is a big driving factor behind a variety of really interesting products: Sauer Frau Squeezable Sauerkraut, Anya’s Apothekere fermented honey sauces, Wild West Ferments (sauerkraut, moroccan beets, carrots with jalapeno, kimchi, etc.), Tulua MediDate Date Seed Coffee, Cleveland Kraut (with interesting flavors like Beet Red, Gnar Gnar, and Roasted Garlic), Rick’s Picks pickled veggies, Suckerpunch Gourmet Pickles, Zen Basil beverages (with basil seeds and Tulsi leaf), and more.

7. Is your honey Manuka?

The secret’s getting out about this wonderful, pure honey from New Zealand. If you’re not familiar, Manuka honey is a functional honey, only crafted by bees that pollinate the native Manuka flower, which blooms but a few short weeks per year. With antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant benefits, it’s no wonder this medicinal honey’s catching on in the US.

Perhaps more importantly, findings of the herbicide, glyphosate (Roundup), in a lot of US products is becoming a significant health risk – not only to people, but to honey bees, which are said to be dying as a result of glyphosate contamination. The affect on the honey supply is significant.

Because bees that pollinate the Manuka flower are doing so in remote areas of the New Zealand bush, they’re not exposed to glyphosate, so Manuka honey is a safer, more pure option.

While there weren’t a lot of Manuka honey brands exhibiting at this show, there were a couple prominent ones (Ezie Bee Functional Honey and Manuka Doctor). As word spreads about Manuka honey, and demand continues to increase for clean, glyphosate-free honey, I’m confident that more brands will start joining the fray.

8. Fresh takes on granola

Granola has been trending for a while now, and companies are launching some really interesting granola products to stand out in what’s becoming a crowded segment.

GrandyOats won a Best New Product Sofi in the Granola/Cereal Category for their grain-free coffee crunch Coconola, which is made with coconut, coffee, and a nutritious blend of hazelnuts, pumpkin seeds and pecans. The Coconola line also includes other intriguing flavors, such as Chocolate Chunk and Super Hemp Blend.

Victory Dance Foods won the Bronze Sofi award in the Granola/Cereal Category for their unique take on granola, Garden Granola, which features beetroot, pineapple, ginger, lemon, and apple.

The granola product that I found most innovative, however, is Kween’s Granola Butter. Billed as “the world’s first spreadable granola”, granola butter is basically granola ground up into a fine paste. It’s sort of like a nut butter, but without any nuts. You can spread it onto things, dip it into things, put it in smoothies, or just eat it with a spoon. It’s really tasty, and super unique. And because it’s free of the top 8 allergens (peanut, tree nut, dairy, eggs, fish, shellfish, wheat, & soy), anyone can enjoy this product just about anywhere. I’m kind of infatuated with granola butter!

9. Some products at these shows leave you scratching your head…

One of the best things about the Fancy Food Show is that you can see really great, trending products/brands…what’s also fun is to see the ones that kind of make you laugh because they’re so odd, out-of-place, or ill-conceived. Some really strange products somehow make it to market. The one that stood out the most to me was this full-size milk chocolate football replica! It did look quite real, and we are approaching Super Bowl weekend…but I’m just not convinced there’s much demand for a massive chocolate football.

10. It’s hard to make it in this business

One thing that’s obvious at a show like this is how hard it is to succeed as a food brand. A lot of these products, which seem to have tremendous potential, will fail. Whether due to branding or packaging shortcomings, insufficient capital, manufacturing issues, competition, recalls, regulatory issues, rising ingredient costs, sourcing issues, failure to stay relevant in a constantly-changing consumer marketplace, or a host of other roadblocks, even some of the trendiest, best-positioned brands won’t make it. I talk to a lot of business owners at these shows, and it’s surprising how many of them are struggling with sales or some other aspect of their business, when it seems on the surface that they’re doing great.

Very often, assuming a competitive product otherwise, poor sales can be traced back to bigger, foundational issues. Things like branding, positioning, storytelling, packaging…these are all critical things to get right, and they could be holding you back. If you’re a brand owner who’s struggling to get the results you want for your business, contact Upstart Food Brands today, and we’ll help!

Josh Schipkowski

Owner of Upstart Food Brands, Josh is dedicated to helping food brands realize their potential.