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This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the March 24, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Judging New Restaurant Fare

Each year I enjoy wandering the aisles of the two big food industry trade shows that crop up at the Javits Center in New York. In summer, it’s the fancy food show. At the end of each winter, just in time to banish the cold weather doldrums, the International Restaurant & Foodservice Show rolls into town.

The restaurant show is a great place to spot trends and sample the newest products, so a food journalist like me finds it downright captivating. (Not to mention being able to snatch up free copies of arcane industry publications like “Foodservice East” and “El Restaurante Mexicano.”)

Like most of the estimated 18,000 or so chefs, caterers, fast food franchisees, and foodservice managers who recently attended the 11th annual show, held March 14 through 16, I got to sip mineral water from a Roman spring that Julius Caesar drank from, marvel at a restroom toilet seat equipped with a rotating sheet of plastic for improved hygiene, and chat with makers of the world’s leader in those quilted stainless steel traffic doors that separate restaurant kitchens from dining rooms.

The usual hazard to attendees of shows like these is mainly gustatory. For example, I sampled back to back in no time flat: neon-colored flying fish roe, Bosco chocolate soda, smoked salmon chowder, and avocado gelato. (The avocado gelato wasn’t bad, believe it or not.)

The majority of new food products this year hop on the low-carb bandwagon – no surprise there. In terms of equipment, espresso and other specialty coffee brewing machines ruled the aisles by sheer number alone.

Unlike other attendees, my role this year went beyond perusing the mind-boggling array of products and services. I was also at the show to be a judge in the new product competition, a highly contested two-hour event in which I and four other food and wine journalists ranked 15 contenders from among the 1,000 or so items on display.

These ranged from ingestible products — low-carb tortilla-wraps and a fruity iced tea blend for example — to equipment such as wire baskets for holding cones of fries and an industrial cleaning system that uses superheated water vapor.

We judges went to work with due diligence, mindful of the small crowd of onlookers who had gathered as well as the seriousness and intensity of the presenters. Since we had gotten off to a late start, we worked at breakneck speed, listening to a two-minute pitch from each company’s rep, sampling the food or drink, or perusing the device, asking questions, and filling out a scorecard. In addition to writing general comments, we ranked each one on a scale of one to ten on criteria such as how well the item met the maker’s claim, whether it satisfied a real market need or represented an improvement in technology, and, of course, taste or overall quality.

An array of Middle Eastern food from Sabra’s “Go Mediterranean” line was first up. As I sampled the fresh tasting tahini (yum) and the acrid eggplant spread (no so yum), I realized that I was responding not as an impartial food professional, but as a potential end user. Eventually I ranked the salads, falafel, and desserts better-than-average as a group, silently wishing I knew what was ahead so I could make a relative judgment. Next up was a platter of appetizers called Good Wives Tortilla Crisps. The bases were flour tortillas that had been folded into small handkerchief-edged cups, baked crisp and packed with creamy fillings in flavors like lobster with mango and edamame (fresh soy beans), and roasted eggplant with sundried tomato. Except for a soggy bottom here and there they were surprisingly appealing.

I can’t remember the order of things from here on out — the pace quickened even more — but I do remember being relieved when a mineral water, not more food, was plunked down as the next contender. Although the presenter talked up its unique and superior qualities — low mineral and sodium content, I believe — I was thinking how hard it is to set a product apart in this category. At which point a second mineral water appeared, this one touting its healthful bicarb quality. Indeed, its taste was reminiscent of Alka-Seltzer, which isn’t necessarily a good selling point.

Other questionable approaches included the low-carb flavored tortillas. In order to show how even the most inept of food handlers couldn’t destroy them, the rep crumpled one up like a piece of notepaper headed for the trash, only for it to resume its original shape unscathed. It tasted exactly the way you would expect an indestructible tortilla to taste. Then there was the caterer who had bottled and jarred her exceptionally good barbecue sauce. Only she wasn’t prepared for us judges to taste it. She was just going to tell us about it. Unflappable professionals that we are, we grabbed the bottle from her and passed it down the table, each of us dipping in with the tapered end of a clean plastic fork.

As the contest progressed I was more and more surprised by my “gut” responses. Although you’d be hard pressed to find a more devoted advocate of natural foods, sustainable farming, and buying local, I found myself adoring the All-American Shirley Temple Soda, complete with its chemical red color and lone maraschino cherry in each bottle. Lord help me, I praised it for its “authentic” Shirley Temple flavor.

I reacted most viscerally not to the food and drink entries, but to two technology-driven restaurant applications. Both are ominous black plastic boxes designed to “improve” communications between restaurant patrons and their servers. The Bell Boy Wireless Paging System is a black pod that has a signal button so diners can alert the kitchen that service is needed, similar to the way we page flight attendants. It’s hard for me to guess who would dislike this more: customers who continue to be ignored even after buzzing or waitstaff who are expected to jump-to. Yet even the pod isn’t as off-putting as another company’s electronic survey system called “The Informant.”

Theoretically, each table is given a hand-held computer pre-configured to accept ratings on service and collect specific complaints (or, I can only hope, kudos). A key selling point, we judges were told, is that the restaurant’s manager can intervene before the customer leaves the restaurant. Yikes! I prefer to reflect my satisfaction or dissatisfaction in my tip, or, for truly egregious service, complain without relying on computer intervention.

Much to my astonishment, the entry that received my personal top score was the one I would have least expected going into the competition. After being presented with the virtues of the Vesta Vapore sanitizing system, I am a true believer. Yes, a cleaning solution for industrial environments stole my heart and vote, for its chemical-free “continuous flow vapor sanitizing equipment.” To me it embodied the best in innovation, design, meeting a real need, and having broad appeal. It helped that its presenter has missionary zeal about this product, which she has hawked not only to restaurants but also to hospitals, municipal boards of health, and even the Centers for Disease Control, and FEMA.

The winners? To my dismay, the Bell Boy Wireless Page (by Atea, Inc.) won Best in Show. So much for being a harbinger of trends. But I am happy to report that both the Shirley Temple soda and the tortilla crisp cups won the beverage and food categories. Who really knows which of these innovations will make it in today’s shaky market. I can easily see the Vesta system vaporizing into thin air — one of a history of excellent solutions that just doesn’t gain acceptance for one reason or another. But no matter, I’ll continue to troll the aisles of the food shows, trying to predict the next big thing. It probably is not avocado gelato.

— Pat Tann

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