Sweets & Snacks Expo, the trade event formerly known as the Candy Show, returned to Chicago for the first time in two years. Expo organizers moved the event to Indianapolis in 2021, after canceling the show in 2020 due to the pandemic.
“Historically, we’ve had about a $21 million impact on the city of Chicago when the show comes to town,” said Lauren Boland, director of communications and a spokesperson for the Sweets & Snacks Expo.
An estimated 16,000 attendees were expected at the event held at McCormick Place from Tuesday to Thursday, Boland said. They took over roughly 4½ acres to showcase candy and snack innovation.
“This is where everyone comes to show off their new innovative products and get together in person to do business,” she said.
Well, not quite everyone. Sweets & Snacks Expo is not open to the public.
“It’s a business-to-business trade show,” Boland said. “What’s so critically important about the show is it brings together the manufacturers and the retailers. This is where people get to see the products and make decisions about what heads to store shelves.”
Some manufacturers at the show, however, sell their products only online.
An annual Most Innovative New Product awards program kicked off the expo.
Trü Frü frozen strawberries, covered in pink ruby chocolate, won the Best in Show award. They’re so new that no samples were available.
“Some of the fun, kind of weird products that I would say we saw were carrots flavored like bacon this year,” Boland said.
In fact, Carrot Bacon won the Small Business Innovator award for what the company calls plant-based jerky, in Carolina Smoke flavor. Samples of the new barbecue and the original applewood flavors revealed they’re not really chewy like jerky, but crunchy like kettle potato chips, with a hint of sweetness from the carrots themselves and from maple syrup. The business is based in Canada, after all. What’s perhaps most impressive is that they’re air-dried, not fried.
“In our state of treating report, we found that people are looking to relive favorite tastes and experiences,” Boland said. The report was released by the National Confectioners Association, the trade organization behind the expo. “Especially with the more home-centric lifestyle that we were all in.”
Flavor intensity is a huge trend this year, she added — salty, sweet or hot.
Two of the best snacks of the show excelled on the hot and salty side of the flavor-intensity trend.
Hattie B’s hot chicken skin chips by Flock were inspired not only by the legendary Nashville fried chicken restaurant, but also by the snack company founder’s years living in Hong Kong, where chicken skin is prized. They’re like pork rinds, but they capture the crackling essence with spiced chicken skin instead.
Carolina Reaper chile and lime ridged potato chips by Burts held a bright, elusive heat in thick-cut ridges. They’re lovely and nuanced, but not too hot, perhaps because the company is British, a culture not known for heat.
“We found that a lot of people are looking for inspiration through social media too,” Boland said.
One of the most talked about new products at the show wasn’t quite a sweet or snack, but threatened a much hotter Carolina Reaper experience instead. A company called Food Fight Co. debuted challenge games that it hopes will go viral on social media: Ant Eater, with a vial of what’s listed in the ingredients as culinary quality edible black ants, and Reaper Roulette, a gummy bear game.
“You roll the dice and they tell you which gummy bear to choose,” Boland said. “It might be an insanely hot one, so you never know what you might get.”
No samples of the ants, which can be found among many culture’s cuisines, or Carolina Reaper gummies were available to taste.
What was available hit on a “new-stalgia” trend. “Everything that you loved as a kid is back,” Boland said.
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Jelly Belly won the Novelty/Licensed award for its Harry Potter Butterbeer chewy candies. For candy that appeals to kids, they’re curiously shaped like frothy steins of beer, albeit with a pleasant butterscotch flavor.
Packaging, by the way, held its own importance at the show. The Butterbeer award was specifically for a barrel-shaped tin.
Another example is the packaging for Yowie chocolate surprise-inside eggs, the legal sweet similar to the Kinder Surprise, still banned in this country. The Yowie egg has an open seam in its chocolate so the plastic egg inside is visible. It holds a larger toy, tested so it’s not a choking hazard. The milk chocolate is better than you might expect for kids, and the adorable wildlife and endangered species toys have become collectibles.
“Manufacturers have really worked to make sure they’re meeting the customer where they feel most comfortable and where they want to be met,” Boland said. “Whether that’s through e-commerce or in person.”
The expo also puts us on the doorstep of National Candy Month, which is June, Boland said.
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