Forget Iowa, Heaven Is the All Candy Expo in Chicago

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It would be difficult to overstate the joy I got from attending the
All Candy Expo, the annual meeting/celebration put on in Chicago by the National Confectioners Association. The two-and-a-half-day spectacle gives candy companies a chance to introduce new products and tap into new markets; retailers a chance to discover products they have not sold before; distributors a chance to find new clients; and, most important, everyone a chance to try more different kinds of candy in three days than most people do in their lives. There were so many great things to try at the Candy Expo, and I feel the need to share a lot of it with the Serious Eats community. As a result, this is going to be a long post. I encourage you to grab a candy bar or two, make yourself comfortable and come along for an exploration of sugary goodness. I apologize in advance for the jealousy you are about to feel.

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I've got a golden ticket.

In order to keep the convention focused more on business rather than people just gathering as much candy as they can, security was tight. To enter the convention, attendees had to have their name tags scanned by security guards. The guards directed people over to a booth where each person was given one bag after that person punched a whole in the nametag. Each bag that was about 4 inches wide, a foot long and 18 inches tall, and that was all people were allowed to use to take candy with them from the Expo. While extra bags were not allowed, women with purses and one man with multiple bags hanging on the back of his wheelchair took full advantage of their extra toting opportunities.

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Chocolate, Lots and Lots of Chocolate

This report has a lot of information, but it does not come close to describing everything I had at the Expo for a few reasons. First, I could not keep track of everything while meeting my goal of at least seeing every booth. Second, there’s really no need to tell anyone about candies that most every interested person has already tried. And third, candy that was not particularly good and/or creative need not be mentioned. So I'm going to focus on products that are new to me and/or the world. I am happy to report that the future of the candy world is very bright.

Smaller Companies, New Products

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Aunt Sally's, the world-renowned purveyor of pralines that is a must-stop on any tour of New Orleans, introduced two new pralines, one of which is not yet on the market. The first one, which is already out, is their Lite Praline, which has 85% less sugar and 40% fewer calories than their regular praline. Given that pralines are typically more sugar than anything else, the concept of a diet version seems odd. But thanks to a new invention out of Southeastern Louisiana, the lower-calorie praline actually works well. Swerve Sweetener is a brand new product that is a sugar substitute made from the fibers of fruits and vegetables. Unlike the Equals and Sweet n Lows of the world, it has the same level of sweetness as sugar and does not have the gross aftertaste. I don’t know if it is an adequate substitute for sugar in all recipes, but it worked very well in the praline. And the CEO of Aunt Sally’s told me that he could not keep track of how many other manufacturers stopped by to ask him about Swerve.

Far more exciting than saving a few calories was the other new product from Aunt Sally’s, which the company is the soon-to-hit-the-market Sugar & Spice praline, which brings together well over 200 years of New Orleans food tradition by combining Aunt Sally’s with Tabasco. The result is a sweet praline with a subtle Tabasco aftertaste. I may even like the Sugar & Spice more than the traditional praline, which is saying a lot since I love Aunt Sally’s original praline.

20090528CandyExpoToblerone2.jpgToblerone was pushing their new Fruit & Nut Chocolate, which they gave out by melting it in a fondue pot and then dipping strawberries in it. The woman working at the booth told me that the melting trick works well with every Toblerone bar. She added the tip that people who try it might want to consider adding a little cream to the mixture. Another Swiss chocolatier, Lindt, introduced a new dark chocolate bar that has sea salt added. The chocolate, which is 47% cocoa, is typical Lindt quality and the touch of sea salt is a great addition. I'm not sure when the sea salt in sweets craze started, but I am a big fan. The new Lindt bar will start shipping to the U.S. in September.

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Ferrero, the company that brings you Nutella and Tic Tacs as well as a series of outstanding chocolates, was pushing their Garden Coco the company’s newest (albeit over a year old) fine candy. These delicious balls start with an almond in the middle, which is surrounded by coconut cream, all of which is surrounded by a flaky wafer and then topped with a coconut meringue. They were just as delectable as the better known Ferraro Rocher, the chocolate hazelnut candy in the gold wrapper in the picture above.

Kookaburra Liquorice Taffy, which apparently has been around for about a year, combines the intense licorice flavor that Kookaburra is known for with the much softer texture of fresh saltwater taffy. I was a big fan of the taffy, but I was less impressed with Kookaburra's two newer products at the show: chocolate covered licorice and sour gummies. The licorice was fine, I am just not a fan of combining it with chocolate. But the gummies were a disappointment. I was surprised to see low quality from a company that makes such good licorice. The sour gummies weren’t terrible, but they were indistinguishable from the generic sour gummy candies available for 99 cents at a typical drugstore.

Finally, Ghirardelli showed off its new Luxe Milk Chocolate line. I tried the hazelnut bar, which was packed with nuts, and I thought it was really good for milk chocolate.

New Candy Companies

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One of my favorite discoveries at the Expo was Strawberry Hill Confectionery, a brand new company that launched at the show. The company was founded by a Henry Zunino, a 30-year-old who combined his academic background in biology with his professional background as a bronze sculptor to make some innovative and delicious treats. His most unique offering are lollipops that actually work as teabags. I watched as one of his assistants (a friend of his who is a psychiatrist when not selling candy) put the candy in a cup of hot water and let it “brew” for a couple of minutes after which I had a nice glass of hot tea. The next step was to take a cup of Lipton tea and stir one of the well-crafted honey pops around for some well-sweetened tea. After drinking the tea, I was left with a delicious honey-flavored lollipop to enjoy. The company also makes a variety of lollipops not related to tea; I tried the grape one and really loved the light grape flavor. Making the experience even better is that all of Strawberry Hill’s products are certified organic.

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Another new product I appreciated was Pastry Chef Suzy’s "The World's Most Amazing Truffle," which are based on a recipe Suzy found in a cook book from 1937. They are not, nor are they supposed to be the best truffle in the world. Heck, they weren’t the best truffle within 10 feet (Harry and David were in the next booth). But what makes these truffles special is that they are cheap and, perhaps more significantly, they do not require refrigeration. The company hopes to have the truffles in stores like Wal-Mart ASAP where they are expected to retail for about $1 per ounce.

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Perhaps the most unique new product at the show was Le Whif, a company launched two weeks earlier and sells what is billed as the world’s first inhaled chocolate. David Edwards is professor Biomedical Engineering at Harvard whose research is primarily focused on designing ways to more efficiently get drugs and vaccines into the lungs, which has typically been by diffusing said drugs into tiny particles. I have no idea how he made the connection, but he somehow got the idea that the same technique could be applied to chocolate. Each Le Whif contains about 200 milligrams of chocolate powder. To inhale, one pulls apart the two ends and then takes a puff. Depending on which flavor one has, their mouth is quickly filled with about 50 milligrams of either chocolate, raspberry chocolate, mint chocolate, mango chocolate or cinnamon chocolate. There is no question that the innovation behind Le Whif is impressive, but it remains to be seen how the market responds. The taste was fine, but the pleasure of inhaling powder is nothing compared to actually savoring a good piece of chocolate. That said, a tube of Le Whif has less than one calorie, so the company has a shot at the huge market of chocolate-craving dieters.

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Another new company that caught my eye is Classy Karma Candy, which is owned and run by the Shah family. They bill the candy as “yoga candy” because of its health benefits which come primarily from the Indian gooseberry, one of the increasingly popular “superfruits” loaded with antioxidants. Yoga candy is made out of powdered gooseberry, ginger, cloves and cinnamon. Each flavor comes though clearly, resulting in a unique candy that is a bit too hard to chew, but is otherwise very good. The Candy Expo was the company’s public debut and they had some good success at the show, working out deals with some distributors and retailers.

The youngest candy entrepreneurs I met at the show were three 23 and 24-year-old guys from New Jersey who have been friends since high school. About 5 months ago, they created Vitamints, which combine the ever-growing demand for vitamin infused foods with breath mints. The guys, who were perhaps the most enthusiastic salesmen at the Expo, told me they already have their product in three to four thousand stores.

Regional Companies Look to Grow

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Whimsical Candy is a Chicago-based company that has been around for a year. Their only product so far is La-Dee-Dahs, which are handmade swirls of incredibly soft nougat and sea salt caramel all dipped in dark chocolate. Like many companies at the Expo, Whimsical touts its commitment to fair trade products, which is nice, though not nearly as important to me as the fact that they make an outstanding product. La-Dee-Dahs are available primarily in the Chicago area, but according to their website, two stores in California and one in New York also have them in stock. I expect that the company will have more success following the Expo.

Another regional candy I was particularly impressed with was the milk chocolate chai tea toffee from Cary's of Oregon, an 8-year-old company that is largely on the west coast. I also tried the dark chocolate espresso toffee, which was every bit as good. Making Cary’s even better is the fact that it is substantially cheaper than typical high-quality toffees. Also from the West Coast is Fusion Gourmet's Bali’s Best line of tea and coffee flavored hard candies that are made with tea extract and real coffee. These intensely-flavored candies have apparently been around for 4 years but they were new to me. I am a big fan of coffee candy and these were, by far, the best coffee-flavored hard candies I have ever had.

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I was excited to see Annabelle Candy Company because they make some excellent and unique products that are primarily available west of the Rockies. The 59-year-old company is working hard to improve its distribution. I think they appreciated my enthusiasm for their product since they gave me a Rocky Road, a Big Hunk and an Abba-Zabba and tried to give me more. I wanted to take them up on it, but I only had one bag to fill and lots of booths still to see.

The East Coast was also represented among regional companies I really liked. Vermints is a 5-year-old company that sells all natural flavored mints that are refreshing, but have no artificial aftertaste. I tried all six flavors: PepperMint, CinnaMint, WinterMint, GingerMint, Chai and Café Express. They are primarily available in health food stores in most of the country, but on the East Coast, they have made more inroads. The mints were almost too good. I liked them so much that, rather than treat them like mints, I looked at them as candy and finished them all after a couple of days.

The American Dream Lives: Foreign Candy Companies Seek Entry to the U.S.

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Sadex has been selling candy in Germany for about 60 years, and is now trying to break into the U.S. market. I’m not sure if the company makes other products, but at the Candy Expo they were pushing a very unique candy called Brause, which I can best describe as a lightly fizzy, high quality version of Smarties, but with a milder flavor. I was a big fan of the texture and flavor and hope they are able to find an economically feasible way to get into the U.S. Either that or I need to make a German friend.

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Rausch, a family-owned German chocolate company that has been around since 1918, finally entered the U.S. market last August in stores like CostPlus World Market and Wegman’s. They sell dark chocolates with a variety of cacao levels and would like to get into stores like Walgreen’s, where they would sell for less money. The barrier to getting that done is that companies in Germany are a bit more generous in wages than their American counterparts tend to be, so packaging costs makes lowering their prices impossible for now. Incidentally, the same issue was mentioned by the U.S. representative of International Glace Inc., a company that sells dried fruits that are covered in a sucrose and glucose mixture.

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Chocolat Frey AG has been making chocolate in Switzerland for 122 years, although if I'd heard of the company before seeing their booth at the show, I don't remember it. Actually, given how good their chocolates are, I am certain I would not have forgotten them if I'd ever had them. I tried five different Frey chocolates, each of which was exceptional. Another company I think I should have heard of but was unknown to me was Wawi, a large German company with facilities in Europe, Canada, China and Australia. Wawi owns three different brands, and I got to try a product from each. Under the Wawi name, I had Schoko-Reis, which is chocolate with enough Kashi-like puffed rice that I thought I was eating something that was good for me. In their Moritz brand, I had something called Icy Cups, which are pieces of solid milk chocolate that have a lower melting point than regular chocolate and are meant to be stored in the refrigerator. Finally, under their Nappo line, I had and loved the company's new soft nougat covered in chocolate, which were like a high-quality Charleston Chew with better chocolate and a softer, more natural tasting nougat.

Titans of the Candy Industry Tout New Products

Of course, the big boys of the candy world were all prominently represented and were focused on their new products. The Mars company was particularly active at the show. For Skittles fans, there’s a new set out called Crazy Cores, each of which combines two different flavors in a two-colored piece of candy. The flavors are Mango Peach, Cherry lemonade, Strawberry Watermelon, Blue Raspberry Lemonade, and Melon Berry. Starburst is now offering GummiBursts in both regular and sour flavors. They are gummy candies that texturally are much more similar to gummy bears than to Starbursts, and they are filled with a syrupy liquid. They were quite possibly the most artificial-tasting candies I had at the show. The only other candy in the running was a brand new Nestle product: Kazoozles from Wonka, which are flavored very chewy licorice ropes with a different flavored, less chewy fruit filling.

Another Mars brand, Dove, introduced a couple of new items: Bananas Foster and Tiramisu-filled milk chocolates, were both of which very good. The fillings had very strong flavors that were not terribly artificial-tasting. Dove had another booth set up in a different area where the company was promoting pairing wines with Dove chocolate.

But much bigger news from Mars than any new product is that the company is giving away 250,000 free candy bars every Friday through September 25. Each Friday morning, simply go to this website and enter in the requested information. Making this even better is the fact that Mars has gotten Doogie Howser to embrace the effort.

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Jelly Belly was celebrating two new products that are not expected to be out until at least September. Up first is a series of "superfruit" flavors, which includes acai berry (all the rage this year), Barbados cherry, cranberry, blueberry and pomegranate. They are made with real fruit juice and are colored with products "made from natural sources," which is probably a good thing. The other new Jelly Belly product is actually a revamping of Sport Beans that involves replacing corn syrup with tapioca syrup.

Hershey's was there showing off some new products that seem so obvious I wondered what took them so long (though it's not like the idea had ever crossed my mind). Basically, the company took the concept of one popular product and combined it with a few others. The result is Almond Joy Pieces, Special Dark Pieces, and York Peppermint Patty Pieces. The Special Dark Pieces were no different from dark chocolate M&M's, but the other two were a great addition to the Hershey family.

Fun With Candy

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20090528CandyExpoCaramelCob2.jpgNovelty items were all over the place and there were a few that caught my eye. Osmanium, a Milwaukee-based company, was at the show promoting their caffeine-infused chocolate line. Their latest product, first introduced last October, is Crackheads2, an espresso bean covered in 60% cocoa dark chocolate that comes inside a candy shell. Also mixed in there is a whole lot of extra caffeine. One 1.3 ounce box of Crackheads2 has as much caffeine as 6 cups of coffee. Taste-wise, they are made of good dark chocolate and a coffee bean, so they are perfectly enjoyable. I did not try, nor did I want to try enough to feel the effects of the caffeine, but if I were still of an age where staying up all night to write papers was a part of my life, I’d be ecstatic to have these available.

The Caramel Cob is a new treat out of Utah that comes plain or with peanuts. Basically it is caramel corn with a higher than usual caramel to popcorn ratio, and it is made with extra soft popcorn. It comes shaped as an ear of corn. I was not a huge fan of the texture, but the four people I shared it with were all big fans. Regardless of the taste, it deserves a mention here based on novelty alone. Scripture Candy was the only company I saw at the show selling religious-themed candy. The candy is pretty run-of-the-mill stuff quality-wise, but I suppose when you have a niche like they do (the candy is available in all 50 states and 19 countries, primarily in Christian bookstores), the need to sell people on the product isn’t as great.

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20090528CandyExpoYellowPeeCandy2.jpgAnother candy company that falls in that boat is Hotlix, which has been making tequila flavored lollipops with actual worms inside for about 25 years. Over time, they have expanded their offerings considerably, including their current best-seller – lollipops with actual scorpions inside. The company farms its one bugs and is currently working on developing candy that will include earthworms. I tried the blueberry sucker with a scorpion inside. The candy itself was pretty pedestrian corn syrupy hard candy and the scorpion itself was pretty dry and flavorless. That said, I’m pretty sure most people buy these for their novelty value, not for their taste.

Some of the more novelty-oriented candies were actually quite good. Tom and Sally's is a Vermont-based company that makes three different fairly high-quality chocolate bars, but has almost 30 different wrappers. In addition to the chocolate business, the wife and husband team also sells a wide variety of hard and chewy fruit-flavored candy they buy elsewhere and repackage into their own creative bags.

Healthy Candy

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There were a number of companies at the Expo touting their organic ingredients, but most of them did not overly impress my taste buds even if they appealed to my politics. There were, however, a few that I really liked. I already described one of them, Strawberry Hill Confectionary. Another company, Parker Products has been making candy since 1926, but in the last year or two, the company has added and expanded its Organic Confections line. For me, the highlight of their new products, and one that I look forward to them making available on the retail market (which is supposed to be soon) is their various barks. The texture is hard to describe; it is firm, but not crisp, and is almost chalky, but in a good way. Some of them have small pieces of candy mixed in and that gives a nice crunch. But it was the flavor and not the texture that made this one of my favorite discoveries at the show, particularly the banana pudding and the raspberry and cream.

Hillside Candy has been around since 1945, but they’ve only been selling their organic Go Naturally line for 3 years. For now, these outstanding hard candies are primarily available in the Northeast (New Yorkers can find it at Wegman’s), but like so many other companies at the Expo, Hillside is hoping to tap into new markets. I tried a few of the flavors and thought the honey candy was exquisite. Over the past few days, I’ve had multiple people over to my apartment to help me sample all the candy I got. The Go Naturally honey candies are one of the few that I removed from public view so I could keep them to myself.

Savory Snacks

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I was surprised to learn that there were a lot of non-sweets vendors at the show. Apparently, the savory snack makers have been grown more and more prominent at the show and the event will be renamed the Sweets and Snacks Expo next year. Among the many savory treats available were at least five different sunflower seed manufacturers and even more beef jerky makers. Mr. Z has been selling jerky made out of grass-fed Brazilian cows for 2 years and the product was noticeably above average. Another savory item I appreciated was Twang. The company started out selling flavored salts to put on beer, but in recent years has expanded their line considerably, including an oddly tasty pickle salt that tastes like a very strong dill pickle, and a new sour apple sugar. There were plenty of other savory treats around, but I focused my sampling on candy and I did not want to waste valuable bag space on air-filled bags of chips so I really did not get much else to report on the savory side of things. I am happy to report, however, that O’Boisies are back and they are still oboisterous!

One final note on the Candy Expo: If you are lucky enough to get a pass, I strongly recommend making sure you are there at the end of the show. Throughout the show, vendors have to be careful to keep enough product around for potential customers. So while they are all happy to give out small samples, there is a lot they hold on to, particularly the bigger items that are there for display purposes only. At the end of the show, most vendors do not want to lug everything home and they become a lot more generous. That is the time to strike and fill up your bag with goodies. But since this is a well-known secret among conference attendees, you need to be prepared. My bag was full so I could not have added more if I wanted to, but I fully enjoyed watching the vicious competition as groups of people tried to get their hands on as much candy as was humanly possible. Like me, every single one of them went home happy.

Bonus Photo Coverage

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