Something’s fishy at the food show

“Kids love tuna steaks,” said a woman from a frozen seafood company, explaining why I need to take advantage of a show special and order a case for $3 off.

“Little kids especially love the flavor profile,” said a man hawking a brand of french fries whose name I already forgot.

Yep, it’s food show season, where every meat, produce and canned pudding producer is eager to tell me exactly how I’m doing everything wrong and why their product will fix that.

After three hours with other chefs (mostly real chefs) at a show this week sponsored by Small Regional Purveyor, I learned I will continue to be a food-service failure unless I buy canned spiced apple rings, frozen roasted potatoes, MSG-laced lobster soup base, cereal from single-serve cups, premium ice cream bars and frozen cakes that cost more per slice than I spend for an entire meal.

Oh, and tuna steaks, of course, perhaps served with those french fries that would have a great flavor profile, if only kids knew what that meant. Kids do love tuna steaks, after all.

Pass.

These shows have some great virtues. Hundreds of products are on display, available for tasting and testing, with brokers and reps from the manufacturers available for quizzing and drilling. Your food service salesman can’t provide all that.

If you want to know which bacon will stand up best on a buffet, which canned plum tomatoes will rock your marinara sauce or whether there’s a better option to the foam cups you use for coffee and filling landfills (guilty), this is your place.

I came away with dozens of ideas and products I’m eager to try.

But the company representatives ooze misplaced confidence and fear. They boast how their frozen beef is superior, even though they can’t say for sure it doesn’t contain pink slime, but worry if you walk away without committing to a purchase. They make hollow claims, oversell and duck tough questions. That’s what they do, and, frankly, it’s why some people like going to these products.

I’ve been to a bunch of these food shows, as a buyer and as media, so I’ve begun to have some fun along the way. I now carry a notepad for writing down interesting exchanges. Ridiculous company reps with odd pitches. Greedy buyers trawling for free hot sauce samples.

I trust you’ll find them as amusing as me.

  • While talking to a rep from Huge Manufacturer, a chef from a restaurant came to see if he could take a bottle of his spicy brown mustard that you all have heard of. “Of course, I would love for you to have it,” said the rep, who turned back to me and rolled his eyes. By the time we were done talking, a half-dozen bottles had been given away. Hello, cheapskates, go to Price Chopper! Or your own fridge!
  • Another thing camp kids would love: Eggplant parm nuggets.
  • A company that sells precooked meatballs shared a table with a cleaner and bleach manufacturer. Wonder what the health inspector would have thought about that?
  • The meatballs, by the way, had “only a 20 percent breading upswing” or some food term like that. I couldn’t quite tell because his mouth was full of meatballs. (We passed; we make our own.)
  • A milk company thinks it’s OK to charge $19.50 for six half-gallons. (Do the math.)
  • The woman trying to sell me tuna steaks later boasted to another buyer that their seafood technically is “fresher than fresh” because it’s flash-frozen at sea. A funny notion by itself, but at the time, she was holding a vacuum-sealed bag of precooked tilapia, which no doubt were raised far from the sea.
  • Another seafood company insisted I try their calamari salad, because our adult guests would love it. Oops, they forgot to make sure the squid had been fully defrosted first. Worst thing I put in my mouth all day — and that, friends, is saying something.
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