A visit to the Sweets and Snacks Expo | Food & Drink Feature | Chicago Reader

A visit to the Sweets and Snacks Expo 

Two intrepid reporters try to avoid drowning in a sea of salt and sugar.

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Leor Galil

Every May, independent chocolatiers, mom-and-pop confectioners, aspiring millennial sweetmakers, grizzled jerky manufacturers, plucky fudge entrepreneurs, industrialized candy companies, and health-conscious snack producers fill two massive halls in McCormick Place for the annual Sweets & Snacks Expo. If you daydream about candy, chips, and small edibles best consumed between meals, this three-day event can be heaven. It’s an opportunity for those in the industry (and a few that report on it) to learn about what trends will dominate the snack world for the next year and who has come up with an ingenious new twist on, say, pretzels. It’s the place you go to try snacks you’d have never dreamed up yourself, often before those treats are available to the rest of the public.

Naturally, two intrepid Reader reporters were on the scene. We surveyed the latest chocolates, chips, and snack bars with chocolate chips. Here’s what we considered good, bad, and otherwise memorable.

Leor Galil: This was my fourth time attending the Expo, and I still can't help but feel like I've snuck into a world that I should not have been allowed to enter, no matter how much my sweet tooth wanted it.

Aimee Levitt: Fourth time! It was only my second, but I'm glad you didn't lord that over me.

LG: Ha! Well, I'm just happy I got to explore some of it with you. When I'm there by myself, I tend to get swept up in the madness of strangers passing out full bars of candy I've never seen.

click to enlarge AIMEE LEVITT
  • Aimee Levitt

AL: It kind of makes you dizzy. It's like trick-or-treating for adults, except then you have to make some sort of sense of it afterward. And there's so! much! candy! And salty snacks.

LG: And pickles! Which, while salty, I never considered in the same realm of snack as, say, pretzels or chips.

AL: I feel like the pickle people are trying to make them a thing, like a healthier alternative to pretzels and chips.

LG: Yeah, it's interesting seeing how people try to spin their products, and a significant portion of snack people played up the alleged healthy qualities of their treats.

AL: I guess you have to do something to stand out from the rest. I mean, what more can you possibly do with potato chips and chocolate bars? The form is pretty much set. The only thing you can really do is experiment with different flavors. Or try to convince people to buy it because it's healthy. That seems just silly to me, though. I'd just work on making them taste better.

LG: Yeah, if I'm going for a chip I'm not necessarily thinking of health first. But when I spent at least a couple hours trying dozens and dozens of different snacks, it at least made me feel a little less gross if, say, a chip was made out of chickpeas and black beans. Though it didn't make the chip particularly great!

AL: See, there's the problem! You did say the lotus root chip wasn't bad, though. (I was afraid to try it.)

LG: True, and in terms of "experimental chip ingredients," that one was better than most. But it didn't quite touch Luke's Ketchup With Mustard and Pickle chip, which remarkably tasted like a meatless hot dog. I was shocked by how much I like it considering how much I thoroughly dislike ketchup in any circumstance.

AL: You're a real Chicagoan now! Luke's chips were really good in general. I liked their salt and vinegar flavor. Maybe that's the thing: if you start with crap, you'll get more crap, no matter what flavor you put on it. For example, Nestlé in general doesn't have good chocolate. You're always going to taste the chalkiness, no matter what they put in.

LG: I think, well, having crap around made it easier to respond to what I liked.

AL: True, true. What else did you like?

LG: The Nora seaweed rolls were an unexpected treat—and which, again, I'm told are healthy, or healthier than the average snack. They were light, surprisingly sweet, but mixed with a slight salty kick. Pretty complex for a snack I could snap in half with a pinkie. What about you?

AL: There was some really good chocolate in Innovation Alley. (And unfortunately I can't remember the names now.) And Jacquet Bakery's Liège waffles were amazing!

LG: The display for the cocoa company Barry Callebaut in Innovation Alley was massive—there were just big wooden boxes filled with bricks of chocolate, it was impressive. And they were really pushing the ruby chocolate.

click to enlarge AIMEE LEVITT
  • Aimee Levitt

AL: The ruby chocolate was not good.

LG: What didn't you like about the ruby chocolate?

AL: It didn't taste like anything to me. Maybe it's because I am old now and prefer dark chocolate and am immune to pink. But I was very disappointed.

LG: Yeah, I think some of the ruby chocolate I tasted didn't advance the taste of chocolate in any meaningful way. I guess pink can make for an interesting trend in chocolate, but not if it doesn't make me want to seek out any other kind of chocolate instead. But one of the best chocolates I tasted was pink: Tony's Chocolonely white chocolate raspberry.

AL: Tony's! They are so great. The sales rep told us how Tony was a journalist who was appalled by labor conditions in chocolate production and vowed to make all his chocolate slave-free. Overall, I go for the nerdy chocolate, like Tony's and Raaka, that emphasize production over pinkness.

LG: Yes! That was fascinating. I do enjoy hearing the stories behind the snacks, though sometimes I just wanted to try a snack without having to talk to anyone.

AL: I totally get that. There was a lot of talking. I am also dubious of the companies that told us they were the number-one thing on Amazon.

LG: Yeah, after a few different places said it, it seemed to lose meaning—how specific can those Amazon sublists for snacks get?

AL: Although it does look like Tom & Jenny's sugar-free caramels really are number one. And Jenny is a dentist!

LG: Yes, that's one of my favorite stories I heard the whole Expo—she wanted to make something sweet that would be less harmful to her clients' teeth!

AL: And they started it in their tiny Manhattan apartment kitchen. I think it's easier to tell a good story if you're a small company run by actual people instead of a conglomerate.

LG: Yes, exactly! Though I couldn't say no to the KitKat mint and dark chocolate bar. The big guys know how to entice people. Except for Pez.

AL: Oh my god! Girls in short, short skirts and little pillbox hats handing out Pez. It was like a car show from the 60s. (How was the mint and dark chocolate KitKat? Someone in the office ate mine.)

LG: (I've been protecting my KitKat, waiting for the right moment to try it, probably not when I'm alone for fear I'd eat the whole thing.)

AL: (Save it for a special moment with someone you love.) Anyway, Pez is dead to me now.

LG: Fair!

AL: Not that I was ever really a Pez lover. Nothing at this convention has inspired me to reverse my stance on sour snacks.

LG: I recall trying fewer spicy snacks than in previous years. Though I'm not sure how to categorize the Sriracha chocolate. Other than "bad."

click to enlarge LEOR GALIL
  • Leor Galil

AL: That was why they had water stations. For that and the Taco in a Bag jerky. Those were easily the two worst things I tried.

LG: I have a hard time recalling the bad things I tried (besides the Sriracha chocolate), because I'm more consumed by the things I didn't get to try. Like Zachary's blackberry cobbler candy corn—and as a candy corn lover, I am open to the fact that this could have been the worst thing I tried.

AL: I can't think of any reason why they would make it, other than it's a nice shade of purple, which is great for Halloween.

LG: For weirdos like me, who will try anything.

AL: Is there a large blackberry cobbler fandom?

LG: Not large enough to convince Zachary to put out free samples!

AL: Curse you, Zachary! On social media, I saw a lot of chatter about the ghost pepper gummies. Did you try yours yet?

click to enlarge LEOR GALIL
  • Leor Galil

LG: I haven't tried it yet—my brain still doesn't know what to make of blue raspberry hard candy that's allegedly the hottest candy imaginable. I'll give it another few days before I try it. But it apparently made quite an impression.

AL: Spicy and sour and blue: what's not to love?

LG: My health!

AL: You're a journalist!

LG: True, true. And I still attend the Expo with the intention of trying the zaniest snacks imaginable. But after a couple hours it gets to be a bit much.

AL: I felt kind of nauseated, to be honest. And then I indiscriminately emptied my goody bag in the office candy cabinet, so most of the things I meant to try were consumed by others. I heard that the Thin Ritz were very good, though, and that the Diablo Taco Bell nacho chips were not.

The one thing I did keep was the Aunt Jemima instant Pancake On the Go (Just Add Water).

LG: Have you tried it yet?

AL: No. But I find it especially appalling because it's clearly meant for people to eat regularly, not as a stunt like the ghost pepper gummies. It's sitting here on my desk next to the bottle of pomegranate hefeweizen beer that someone sent to the office last winter. I'm saving it for a day when I feel true despair about the state of humanity.

LG: You know, you mention people wanting to eat something regularly, and I wonder if the ghost pepper gummies could be the natural conclusion of "how far can we take snacks now." After seeing and trying so many snacks, what's the one you'd go for?

AL: It's funny, the ones I really liked were the ones that did simple things really really well, like Luke's Potato Chips or the nerdy chocolate companies. I also really liked Nudge Coffee Butter. But that seems like a natural outgrowth of Nutella. How about you?

LG: My only complaint about Nutella is that I always want more of it.

AL: True, true. The pretzel sticks and dip are genius.

LG: Seriously! I didn't try that one yet, but I really enjoyed Luke's Potato Chips and Tony's white chocolate raspberry. And though I haven't tried it yet, I do enjoy the packaging for Cutie Cakes—I giggle when I think of a collection of them on display.

AL: They look so alarmed!

click to enlarge AIMEE LEVITT
  • Aimee Levitt

LG: But also cute!

AL: I would feel like I was committing murder.

LG: When you put it that way, now I'm not sure I want to try it...

AL: Maybe I could get over it. Since the cuteness is only on the packaging.

LG: And that we can hold on to forever. Any final thoughts before we begin counting down the days till next year's candy convention?

AL: I am deeply disappointed that there were no flavored Oreos for us to try. The Game of Thrones Oreos were so two days ago.

LG: Seriously, I saw that pretty soon we'll have S'mores Oreos (S'mOreos, I like to call 'em) in stores, and I hoped to try them at the Expo. Boy, I was disappointed.

AL: Then again, Oreo has nothing to prove.

LG: I'll continue trying the latest creations, no matter how much they taste like Lysol (please don't eat the "Fruity Crisp" Oreos, please).

AL: Oreo should be proud to have a loyal consumer such as yourself. Any final thoughts from you?

LG: I wish the Expo had a break room with a free salad bar, but we can't have everything.

AL: It's true. And in the case of the Sweets and Snacks Expo, I feel like it would be churlish to ask for more.

LG: At that Expo, there's more than enough. I'm pretty sure I missed something I would've liked to try, and it'll haunt me till next year's Sweets and Snacks Expo.

AL: That's the beauty of it. There are always more sweets and snacks.   v

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