At this summer's annual Fancy Food Show in New York City, maple syrup comes in cubes, chocolate chips are cold-smoked over alder wood, and chickpeas are the new black.

Every year, grocery executives, fledgling chocolatiers and other Epicurean-minded souls flock to the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center for the specialty-food industry's biggest event (a smaller version is held in San Francisco every winter). This year's show taking place next week will be the largest in its 60-year history with more than 2,700 exhibitors displaying roughly 180,000 products, from crunchy capers manually harvested in Sicily to roasted Thai coconut lemongrass chickpeas from Berkeley, Calif.

Founded in 1955, the Fancy Food Show is a buzzy, sought-after place to pitch and showcase the latest innovations in cheese, chocolate, gadgets and more to food buyers and trend-watchers looking for the next new thing to bring to consumers. Terra chips, Perrier and Ben & Jerry's ice cream all debuted at the Fancy Food Show before they became household names, according to Louise Kramer, public relations director of the Specialty Food Association, the nonprofit trade association that runs the event.

The show also hosts the sofi™ Awards, in which Oscar-like statuettes are bestowed in a red-carpet ceremony for best dessert, best new product, best packaging and nearly 30 other categories. This year, some of the finalists include smoked okra jarred and flavored with Spanish paprika (best appetizer); handcrafted Bluegrass Soy Sauce aged in repurposed bourbon barrels (best condiment); and gluten-free chocolate-chip cookie dough macaroons (best snack food). Winners are announced June 30.

Observers credit the gourmet food show's steady growth in part to a widening of sophisticated tastes boosted by the Food Network and celebrity chefs. Sales of specialty-food products hit an all-time high of $88.3 billion in 2013, up from nearly $65 billion in 2012, according to the Specialty Food Association.

Longtime attendee Jane St. Claire also points to the economic recession of 2008 and 2009 that allowed aspiring chefs and home bakers to take risks and launch their own small businesses.

"It was a perfect opportunity to live their dream," says St. Claire, founder of Savor California, a group of artisan food and beverage producers from the Golden State. "The recession allowed them to get in slowly and ramp up. Then when the economy took off, they were ready with their products, and it looked like a wise move."



Summer Fancy Food Show
The show attracts food buyers and trend-watchers looking for the next new thing to bring to consumers.

This year, smoked products — from chocolate chips to chipotle mayonnaise -- and banana flavors infused in sorbets and popcorn are popping up with some consistency, Kramer notes. Also generating pre-show buzz is the scheduled demonstration of a 3D food printer from 3D Systems that creates geometric shapes with chocolate and other edible ingredients.

Hot new food trends often make a brief appearance, then fade quickly, such as the low-carb craze of the 1990s. Other once-trendy items, such as truffles and figs, are now common sights at the show, Kramer says.

"We don’t even blink when we see chocolate and bacon products anymore," she adds.

Navigating the aisles and aisles of booths requires tenacity and preparation, even for the most jaded of participants, says Amy Sherman, a food writer and blogger who has been attending the San Francisco show since she was a teen working in a gourmet food shop. Sherman suggests studying the show guide ahead of time, mapping out a strategy, and arriving early.

Most importantly, don't overdo it and end up with a severe case of indigestion, Sherman warns. "I always split the time I have in two. I spend half tasting and exploring savory food and half sweet," she says. She also wears comfortable shoes and skips booths with familiar products in favor of unusual samples that might be hard to find elsewhere.

The show's massive size also creates a challenge for exhibitors to stand out among all the gourmet salsas and sea salt-dusted caramels. St. Claire says she always insists that members of Savor California make sure the founder or owner of their company is present at the booth to stand behind the products.

"The most critical thing is to be an identifiable personality," she says. "That has to be evident in everything. It’s the story behind the products that people want to know. They want to know that you believe in it."

A tasty product also helps, the show's organizers say. "If you have an excellent product, these buyers know what they’re doing," Kramer says. "If they think it’s something consumers will like, they’ll take a chance on it."