The Sweets & Snacks Expo pulls back the confectionery curtain | Best of Chicago 2017 | Reasons to love Chicago | Chicago Reader

The Sweets & Snacks Expo pulls back the confectionery curtain

This annual industry convention is more overwhelming than Willy Wonka’s factory tour—but you’re much less likely to get turned into a giant blueberry.

Fully loaded snack bazookas - SARAH JOYCE
  • Sarah Joyce
  • Fully loaded snack bazookas

It was a May midafternoon on the first day of this year's Sweets & Snacks Expo, and I was catching my breath and charging my phone when I accidentally met the biggest celebrity at the whole three-day event. I was in the Jack Link's pavilion, one of the largest at the expo, with my friend Sarah Joyce, a photographer and founder of GlitterGuts. Aside from the charging station, the pavilion included a claw arcade game filled with rolled-up T-shirts and several tables of samples—including bites of a new "breakfast bacon" flavored like brown sugar and maple, which had a cloying syrup aftertaste. A middle-aged man with weathered skin asked me and Sarah what we did for a living, and when we answered, he jokingly offered to let us interview him. It was only after we politely declined that we learned he was the actual Jack Link, founder of the Wisconsin company that beats all comers in the jerky game—according to a recent story in the Star Tribune, Jack Link's pulls in more than $1.2 billion annually.

In my defense, I didn't come to the expo to interview snack superstars. I came to try every unusual confection, questionable candy, and bizarre chip my stomach could handle. The convention stands out among the many industry events at McCormick Place: unlike, say, Cyber Security Chicago, which caters to security specialists and IT professionals, Sweets & Snacks attracts lots of media people, who have to apply to attend. And of course I applied: I have such a ridiculous sweet tooth that if I ease up on the brakes and really indulge it, I'll end up unable to do anything but lie flat and very, very still.

For retailers scoping out new products and suppliers hoping to get their treats into more hands, the expo is the Olympics of the industry, attracting the best from 90 countries. For the rest of us, it's Halloween without costumes—and the vendors' tables are a lot closer together than houses on a block. This year nearly 800 snack companies posted up across four acres of McCormick Place, which meant there was so much to try that I had to carefully pace myself.

The expo's real treat isn't the quantity of snacks, though, but rather the opportunity to eat so many that are new to you—this year the majority of the samples I got were things I'd never tasted before. I tried square pink yuca chips flavored with beet and goat cheese by Massachusetts company Cassava Crunch. I had peanut butter caramel corn balls from Indiana's Albanese Confectionery Group, which melted in my mouth surprisingly quickly. And for some reason I popped a few green "Minion Fart" Jelly Belly jelly beans, which smelled appropriately putrid—like essence of rotten egg—but tasted more like burnt sugar. I don't know what I thought Minion farts might actually taste like, but that wasn't it.

By the end of the expo I'd taken home three huge tote bags full of snacks—enough to overwhelm even me. When I got back to my place at the end of the first day, I couldn't even think about eating more, so I decided to set up a goofy Instagram selfie: I covered myself in packaged candy until only my face was showing. You could even say that I . . . poured some sugar on me.  v

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