Picking the next top tastesSan Francisco Chronicle
January 26, 2014
Long before sea salt ever met caramel, before we started wrap- ping every conceivable morsel in bacon, and even before a murky brew called kombucha nudged its way onto the tea shelf, there were people who saw it coming.
They are food fortune-tellers, equal parts marketing whiz and epicurean, who often make their predictions at the winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco, the just-concluded annual extravaganza of up-and-coming specialty foods designed to wow consumers’ palates with the Next Big Thing.
Kara Nielsen of Oakland is a professional food trend spotter. It’s her job to find out what we are going to like before we’ve even heard of it, by sampling and sipping at the 13,000 exhibits that were crammed into Moscone Center last week. She’s among an elite group of eight tasters chosen by the Fancy Food Show to telegraph the biggest food stories of 2014.
“In many ways it’s all the same stuff, but I’m trying to spot the slight variations, the new flavors that are surging, a familiar thing in one category turning up in another, what new health claims people are making,” said Nielsen.
“Quinoa is a good example. We were trending it for years before it went mainstream as a grain. Eventually it started turning up in chocolate bars.”
Nielsen is a former pastry chef whose taste has landed her jobs as a “food trendologist” for the Center for Culinary Development in San Francisco and trend spotting for CEB Iconoculture Consumer Insights. This was her 13th trip to the Fancy Food Show, and as a veteran,vshe showed up in sensible shoes, with a water cup and toothbrush in her purse. Her first stop is always the What’s New corner, with banks of gleaming glass cabinets. Vendors pay a premium, above the standard $3,400 booth fee, to get into the What’s New section.
“There’s a lot of Thai coconut flavoring,” Nielsen noticed as she snapped photos of Thai coconut lemongrass chickpea snacks from the Good Bean, and a Thai Coconut Pumpkin savory jam from Skillet Street Food Inc.
There were Korean barbecue rice chips, sriracha peach jam, gluten-free sweet potato fettuccine, date and chia seed muesli, and a “high-caffeinated” energy tea from the Republic of Tea.
Next she spotted Perky Jerky, a turkey jerky made with caffeine.
“That’s a little goofy, but I’m sensing an energy trend,” she said.
With her notebook full of ideas, Nielsen hit the floor to put her tongue to the test. Her first stop was the Savor California section, a collective of small, state purveyors, many marketing their wares for the first time, such as Payam Fardanesh, a former computer programmer from Roseville who decided he’d rather bottle the cucumber and mint refresher his grandmother made in Iran and see if he could make it big.
“Oh, my God!” Nielsen said, after her first sip.
“That’s five, we’ve gotten five ‘Oh, my Gods’ so far, and it’s only an hour into the show,” said Fardanesh, co-owner of Silk Road Soda.
“What’s the base?” Nielsen asked.
“It’s organic white vinegar and apple cider,” he said.
Nielsen jotted down vinegar in her notebook. Vinegar drinks are starting to surge, she said.
Then she noticed a small crowd jostling for something nearby.
“Brazilian cheese rolls! I’m all over that!”
Flavia Takahashi-Flores of P- DE-Q in Fresno could barely pass out her warm, golf-ball-size gluten-free pão de queijo Brazilian tapioca-based bread snacks fast enough. They had a soft yet crisp texture, and came in cheese, jalapeño, chocolate and carrot flavors.
“Doing something new, especially in ethnic food with (gluten-free), is very new,” Nielsen said.
Making it big
After two full days of sampling, Nielsen was ready to say what she thought would go big in 2014:
Anything with sriracha sauce: mixed in peach jam from the Jam Stand in Brooklyn, lots of sriracha popcorns and a Bloody Mary mix.
South American snacking: P- DE-Q cheese rolls; qancha, a Peruvian heirloom corn snack tossed in avocado oil and sea salt from a San Francisco company called Nazqiz; and alfajores “snickerdoodle” cookies from Buenos Aires Alfajores in Oakland.
Yogurt in new ways: as a Mediterranean spread from Blue Isle, a chocolate Greek yogurt from Wallaby Organic Yogurt, and a probiotic cultured goat milk drink called YoGoat from Coach Farm in New York.
Dessert teas: chocolate mint and chocolate rooibos “indulgence” teas from Numi, a white chocolate and a salted caramel maté tea from Stash, and Tea Forté’s Noir Peach Brulee.
“It’s permissible indulgence,” Nielsen said.
Meredith May is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: mmay@ sfchronicle.com Twitter: @meredithmaysf
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