Fancy Food Shows - 60 Years Of Memories
The history of specialty foods in America is fascinating—one filled with wonderful stories and a group of pioneering, hard-working, colorful individuals. My family was once quite prominent in establishing this industry and I spent over 40 years of my career being part of this evolution. I have now experienced more than 60 years of watching this industry emerge into what it has become today.
As I walked the Javits Center at the 2019 Fancy Food Show many of these memories came to me.
Let me take you back to 1958 to the Astor Hotel in New York where I attended my first Fancy Food Show. I was eight years old and the rule was you had to be 14 to enter the show. Somehow, I got in and have attended the Summer Show now for more than 60 years, only missing one show while I studied overseas.
The Fancy Food Show actually began in 1955. Only a handful of vendors displayed in those days. After the Astor the show moved to the New York Coliseum near Central Park. It remained there for many years until it moved to the Javits Center. One year in the 1980s it was held in Washington D.C.
I vividly remember companies and individuals who took part in those very early shows. These were the finest salesmen, diehard aggressive salesmen mostly from Europe who had brought with them to America their knowledge of European culinary experience. One thing they were not was order takers. The foods that they were peddling were for the most part unknown in the U.S.
Here are some names of these mostly Jewish refugees who came to America with a flare for European culture and cuisine. All were masters of the “culinary arts.” From my family were my dad Fred A. Schlossberg and grandmother Bluma Schlossberg, the founders of Castle Food Products, Baltimore, Maryland, a mid-Atlantic specialty food distributor started in the 1940s.
Others were my dad's cousins, Max Reese and his nephew Steve Reich of Reese Finer Foods in Chicago. My uncle Arnold Rosenstock and his partner Arnold Nussdorf and their very knowledgeable buyer Marty Isaacs all ran A&A Foods in New York. The company was sold to Filagree Foods in the early 80s. Other relatives in the specialty food industry were my great uncle Louis Hamburger and distant cousin Earl Friedman of Hamburger and Sons, Portland, Oregon. All these family members were pioneers of this specialty food industry.
To get a list of all the pioneers of the gourmet-specialty Industry, go to the recipients of the Hall of Fame and Lifetime Achievement Awards given out by the Specialty Food Association.
I remember many innovative pioneers, the risk takers who were responsible for setting the stage for the industry: Walter Kopell of Jaret Foods, Frank Landry of Odense Marzipan, Kurt Lehman and Teddy Koryn of Liberty Imports, Manfred Adler of Atalanta Foods, Harold Alexander of Koppers Chocolate, Kurt Rosenberg and Berlin of Arbee Fine Foods, Bruno Scheidt of Roland Foods, Art Stone of Gourmet Award, Harold Anderson of Haddon House Foods, and Leon Wexler of Europa Foods.
Brokers Jerry Santucci of Twining and Tobler and Gene Orsenigo who peddled Perrier and Maille Mustard, John Roberts of Irroqois Foods, Jim McGilloway of Twining—those are just a few dynamos who come to my mind selling their wares in the early years. Morrie Kushner, Bob Cooper, Henry Feurstein, George Robacheck, Marty Stein, Edith Friedlander. Edith introduced Brazillian hearts of palm, a little known vegetable. These were all culinary geniuses. They took their samples in their car trunks driving city to city presenting their wares to all those who would listen. Listen they did, and these are some of the giants who rocketed the industry into orbit. They introduced Americans to the culinary arts.
Here are some of the brand names on display in those early years of the Fancy Food Show: Tobler, Twinning, Ty-phoo, McGrath's, Indar teas, Pampadour herbal teas, Melitta, Drostee, Lindt, Kjeldsen’s, Bremner, Parker snacks, Raffetto, Faugier chestnuts, Underberg bitters, Meir's grape juices, Perrier, Evian, Vichy waters, Dr. Oetker, Bird's desserts, Familial Cereal, Romanoff caviars, Bertolli and Plagnoil olive oils, Bolands Irish biscuits, Lu biscuits, Carr's biscuits, Huntley & Palmers, Patterson Shortbreads, Peak Frean, Manner, McVitie's Biscuits, Ferrara confections, and many other unique products.
Very slow sellers were Perrier, Evian, Vichy and Pellegrino. People laughed when I told them our company sold water. Later, these imported waters began the bottled water and seltzer revolution.
I remember a small bag of lollipops called Lik-Bits. Danish Kjeldsen’s tinned butter cookies, tins of Huntley and Palmer English Cookies, tiny sugar cubes called sugar babies from Belgium, Parker Peppita nuts and sunflower seeds in glass jars. One year, cousin Max Reese introduced items like chocolate-covered ants and tiger meat. Rattlesnake meat was already available with Bird’s Nest soup, oxtail soup and kangaroo soup. Giant Spanish olives stuffed with pimento were called Cannon Balls or “Tremensional” olives, both names used by our families in Castle Village or Reese private-label products. Mexican foods were becoming popular and names like Clemente Jacques and Ashley's were authentic Mexican specialties.
Escargot and shells, pastry coquillettes, Tartelettes mini toasts, and cream crackers were all good sellers. Imported cheeses, olive oil, Walker shortbread, Weston Stone Wheat crackers, rice cakes, Altoids, Ricola, Perrier, Evian would all become hot sellers but only years later, once they became popular mainstays of the evolving industry. Many items would be lost to the general grocery channel as volume took them to another arena.
My dad told me stories about the U.S. banning imported goose liver pate in the early 1950s. A retailer in Washington, D.C. ordered a container of the shelf-stable canned goose liver before the ban, only to have much of the pate go bad after a few years.
Gift sets were popular, and one endeavor was the Galloping Gourmet line of packaged gift sets. The Galloping Gourmet was a TV celebrity and two weeks before the line was introduced at a Fancy Food Show, his TV contract was cancelled. That was a major specialty disaster.
I remember federal marshals flashing their badges, raiding our warehouse, and embargoing our 60+ cases of kangaroo tail soup as it was declared an endangered species. We had to destroy the entire inventory. That was only topped by federal agents and SWAT sharp shooters surrounding a home in Potomac, Maryland, where liquor-filled chocolates were stored and sold by a young lady who was not aware the alcohol content made it illegal to sell to grocery food stores. I remember her calling me in a panic as the federal agents positioned themselves around her residence ready for a shoot out. My advice to her was to open her front door and go out with her hands up and give up the goods. She eventually came to work for my company.
In my own everyone-makes-mistakes column, I remember a salesperson tried to sell me some cloudy apple Juice. Martinelli apple juice was a hot item but it was a clear juice. This cloudy juice offered to me was called Snapple, and I turned it down as I was convinced it would not sell. Nobody mentioned that iced tea would follow.
Cheese fondue, pate, truffles, and caviar were party favorites of that era.
I remember a line of canned whole pheasant and domestically packed specialty pates called High Valley Farm. Other unusual items were Castle Village, our company’s private-label, whole peeled white peaches packed in tins, and French crystallized violets and roses to decorate pastries. Basserman white asparagus, Felix lingonberry, and German sausages in tins made by Stockmeyer were popular specialties.
We sold a lot of imported candy and chocolates: Lindt, Tobler, Perugina, Sarrotti, Ritter, Guylan and domestic chocolates Ghirardelli, Girards, Koppers. Then came gummy bears from Germany. In 1987 I was selling almost $1 million of just that one item.
Domestic manufacturers emerged, creating spin-offs of international products. Manufacturers domestically began to produce specialty mustards, sauces, salad dressings, BBQ sauces, beverages, cocktail mixes (Holland House, Mr. and Mrs. T, Bartenders were all big sellers in the 1960s). Pasta sauces galore came out in the 60s and 70s. California gave us black olives and almonds, but green olives were imported. Then came the Japanese rice crackers, which made a major splash followed by puffed rice cakes and flat breads, domestic and imported. Tacos and salsa were manufactured domestically. American chefs like Paul Prudhomme introduced Cajun cooking. California cuisine, Southern fried chicken and Texas BBQ were pleasing American consumer palates. Ground coffee beans in huge burlap bags and coffee shops paved the way for Starbucks.
Consumer Awareness and Influencers
Consumer evolution had a lot to do with our military troops, as our soldiers were stationed all over the world and were introduced to European and Asian menus. Even pizza added European flavor. Television and advertising made a huge impact on the American consumer. The U.S. traveler vacationing all over the globe introduced us to many new foods and dishes. As a result, fancy Italian and French and more relaxed Chinese restaurants opened, soon followed years later by Mediterranean cuisine. When the Shah of Iran came to the White House our company supplied some of the Romanoff Beluga caviar for him. Jackie Kennedy loved French cuisine and helped promote it. Dijon mustards, escargot, croissants, and freshly baked crusty French and Italian breads became incredibly popular.
Kosher cuisine was a lower volume category as the numbers of consumers were concentrated in major markets like New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, Atlanta, Chicago, LA, Detroit, Cleveland and Southern Florida. Certain items like bagels and chicken noodle soup have broken out and crossed to the general, wider consumer markets.
Regional domestic foods and beverages spread. Vernors, a well-known Detroit soda, and Canfield Diet Fudge soda of Chicago spread to the East Coast. Dr. Pepper got out of Texas. Jamaican ginger beer and Meir’s Grape sparkling beverages became big items. Rice blends like Near East and pilafs, brown, and wild rice and couscous became popular side dishes. Old El Paso, Goya, and Progresso received major space allotments in supermarkets.
Finally, the “route to market” and regional brokers and distributors evolved. Late in the 90s the national network of brokers and distributors began. Larger national distributors like Tree of Life, DPI, Haddon House, KeHE, Gourmet Award, and UNFI began to compete with the local smaller regional distributors, who they purchased one by one, greatly consolidating distribution.
Gourmet stores and department stores carried specialty foods as did a few grocery stores located in upscale neighborhoods. That began to change in the 60s when the grocery chain stores took an interest in specialty foods. Nothing was integrated but specialty sections began to slowly appear. That would be followed by diet foods, health foods, and the wave of gluten-free products yet to come.
Many specialty items were mainstreamed into the general grocery market. That was the nature of the business—we built some volume items only to lose them to the regular grocery trade once volume and major advertisement took them to the next consumer level.
Here’s a look at wholesale specialty pricing in 1968:
Beluga caviar: $44/pound
Bremner tins: $10.60/dozen; retail $2.69
Carr's crackers: $4.80/dozen; retail $0.79-$0.89
French Fried Grasshopper tins: $3.95/dozen
Fried baby bees in chocolate: $12.35/dozen
Les V'osgienne Cady tins: $2.40/dozen; retail $0.39-$0.49
Stone Wheat Thins $4.20/dozen and 1 case free with 10
Tobler chocolate bars: $3.20 a dozen; retail $0.59 or two for $1
Twining teas: $7.05/dozen; retail $0.99
I remember visiting the specialty markets and cheese shops with my dad in the 60s. Washington D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood had unique gourmet stores. Most memorable were Neam's Market, Larimer's Market, The French Market, Grover Park Market, Old Georgetown Coffee Shop, The Cheese Shop and, uptown, the Chevy Chase Market and Magruder’s. In Charlottesville, Virginia, was 7 Day International Shopping Center. In New York, Balducci’s, Zabars and later Dean and Deluca were the rage. These were distinct outlets. Fresh ground coffee was in its earliest stages and imported cheeses were a rarity. These stores were frequented by international staffs of the embassies in Washington D.C. or in New York around the United Nations.
Time moves on. Prices have changed, packaging design has improved, and where we carried 4,000 SKUs, today wholesalers carry 35,000 SKUs. Order pads, pencils, and pens have been replaced with efficient digital technology. iPads and scanners are the tools of today’s salespeople. It's a new world. Salesmanship and product knowledge have, unfortunately, been replaced by slotting and corporate deals. Most have forgotten how to sell.
New item innovation and names are not as unique as they once were. But, hopefully, on the bottom floor of Javits or in the many country or state booths are new companies or exciting products hoping to get your attention. These are young, entrepreneurial, hungry companies who have that spirit of the original pioneers of the specialty food industry. That salesmanship and personality will bring their fine products to market successfully.
Here's a toast to over 60 years of specialty sales. I have loved my career and all the wonderful people I met on my way. Thank you for a great ride.