I carted myself cross-town yesterday to take part in an annual rite of passage: the Fancy Food show. On the bus, among the other worker bees dwelling in San Francisco, I plotted my day by starting with poetry before experiencing the surge of sensory stimuli I have come to expect from any tradeshow. Taking the familiar path to the Moscone center, I privately delighted in getting to walk the show floor rather than exhibiting. Not so long ago, I didn’t have the experience of being just an attendee, but instead logged many miles jettisoning cross-country and participating in booth setup and dismantling.
Many hours and years have made me a tradeshow veteran. I can sweat and build a booth with the ease and practiced hand of a show employee. Several years spent building a booth and supervising union employees could easily become notches on a proverbial belt. I’ve seen the guts of the McCormick when its rambling gigantic halls resonate with the sound of lift-trucks and are littered with pallets of product or fancy customized wooden crates. I always found the transformation of a show hall rather stunning from the execution of booth setup to the entire hall being outfitted with carpeting. I’ve marveled at the amount of trash that accumulates from three or four days of hundreds of companies sampling, schmoozing, and getting to put out their new products in front of current and potential customers.
Five hours up and five hours plus down- that’s what it took to build and deconstruct the 10×20 booth I had watched develop from the blueprint stage to completion. My sidekick Charles and I had developed a system where we didn’t even have to talk. We had put the booth together so many times that our movements became part pantomime. Inside the booth, I developed a bit of a reputation for being a stickler during setup and tear down. Then again, I was a bit of a stickler during the tradeshow too, slyly removing any lip gloss tubes carelessly laying on the product shelves or coffee cups on the front counter.
What can I say, I liked to run a tight ship. I still do. My eyes became accustomed to reading badges, deciphering badge colors and quickly scanning the company names, knowing whose elbow to tug and send out into the middle aisle to track down the right buyer or representative. I was good at working it, seeing each person entering the booth as someone within my charge and as an opportunity to display hospitality whether it occurred through answering questions, swapping stories or serving a sample size and talking about flavor notes. I became close with the tradeshow organizers or as close as you can become at a see-you-once-a-year affair. Walking the aisles, I knew the rules of the land and reveled in tailoring them to the circumstance.
One year in particular, we exhibited at a gift show in the Javits Center. Crammed into the already large space of the convention center were kiosks and stalls that outnumbered any I’d seen before. My usually sunny outlook began waning toward the close of the show floor at 1 p.m., knowing we had an entire afternoon to wait for our crates to arrive. Usually, I brought a book or ipod to keep myself occupied. After about 5 hours, our crates still remained in question and someone had flung open the back door to haul the crates inside during a New York winter. Our aisle was clogged with crates and I saw no end to the waiting ahead. Thus began the hunt for the crates. Decked out in a scarf and gloves I parsed my way through the score of waiting crates looking for the sticker and my handwriting. We tracked down our crates and as the union guys took their justifiable break, I attempted to make a break of freeing the crates, eschewing the conventions of the breakdown process and hearing insults hurled my way.
Those were the days of fancy meals out once the crates had been properly stickered and papers turned in, to celebrate an event well thrown and to abate the gnawing fatigue of hours of manual labor exacted upon a body unused to construction. Those would be the nights of hobbling into the hotel room, ankles and feet sore from miles of tradeshow walking and standing on concrete slabs masqueraded in sheets of rented carpet.
My usually ebullient self at the end of a tradeshow day craved the silence and anonymity of a good book and meal hoisted up along the bar of a restaurant that would nourish me beyond sample bites. While my colleagues sought networking dinners or parties, I sought solace in being solitary. My dining companions often included Yehuda Amichai or Czesław Miłosz. In the restaurant I could watch and not participate, commiserate with the bartender or play the part of the quiet traveler dining for one. It was a delicious way to recharge for the following day.
In those days that had me traveling a great deal for events and shows, I began La Vie en Route as the fledgling blog mirrored the life being lived en route.
Walking into the Moscone on Monday, wearing my tradeshow badge, I met up with a friend who lives in Seattle. She and I rarely see each other so our day-long jaunt walking the North Hall to the South was in itself a special treat. On occasion, I ran into friends in the industry and food writing friends. Anita and Kaye snapped a quick photograph at an ice cream booth while conducting an interview with owner Jeni. I talked business with friends mobbed as visitors happily assailed their booths.
Walking a food show, I’m struck by the ingenuity of companies and the passion of small brands planting their stake in the ground and starting to build awareness and an audience. They are my kindred spirits and I like to see people respond affirmatively to fantastic ideas with their correspondingly small budgets. Similar to the uncanny knack that Hollywood displays in releasing several movies at the same time around the same theme, I am also struck by the rote product releases which come across as me too products rather than grand reveals.
Somehow, somewhere, I toggle both worlds- seeing the back end of the food business like dropping in on the Wizard of Oz and pulling back the curtain as well as sharing enticements with you here in this small space in the cybersphere.
I understand the anticipation and long tail of work that goes into planning a new product release and then watching with abated breath to see how people will respond. In some ways, it’s much like putting one’s art into the ether and letting people engage with it. In other ways, it’s akin to iterating and making adjustments to fit public demand. This might be where art and the food business part ways. Walking tradeshows, we are all, food writers and food business professionals, looking with eyes wide open for the next big thing. And you know what, in the end I get excited as the next person when I stumble upon something fabulous and unexpected.
It also makes me crave something simple.
The deeper I’ve delved into appreciating food, the more I require from it. Seeing the newfangled does not a better product make.When will we realize we don’t need to try and out-sugar sugar? I want to helpfully assert to the warm bodies working the booths that I don’t need the hard sell. I surely don’t want it. Let the product speak of its own accord. As someone who works in marketing, this might be a surprise.
After an altogether fun and draining day of walking the go-to specialty food show of the food industry, I find myself gravitating toward tomorrow’s lunch of bulgur, which sounds sturdy and supportive. My grand reveal is that this whole grain, bulgur, is not boring, no matter how long it’s been filling the bulk bins at the local grocery store stocked with overlooked bags lining the dry good shelves. Oh no, bulgur is a canvas for the creative. With the right ingredients, an alchemy translates this stodgy whole grain into something quite magical. It pitches a soft sell on the wallet, the clock and palate.
After a long day of networking and mingling with my peers, what I really want other than probiotics for a rumbly stomach, are a few of these warmed Bulgur Collard Cakes- that and a long bubble bath to soak the aching tradeshow feet.
The booths – the throngs of people – the bone sore feet- I wouldn’t have my tradeshow experience any other way.