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HASBROUCK HEIGHTS, N.J. -- The Eastern Perishable Products Association here will host its final Taste Show and Exhibition of the century with a focus on what will be important to consumers and members of the perishables industry as they move into the new millennium.Scheduled for Oct. 27 and 28 at the New Jersey Convention Center in Edison, N.J., the EPPA 1999 Taste Show & Exhibition has grown in both

HASBROUCK HEIGHTS, N.J. -- The Eastern Perishable Products Association here will host its final Taste Show and Exhibition of the century with a focus on what will be important to consumers and members of the perishables industry as they move into the new millennium.

Scheduled for Oct. 27 and 28 at the New Jersey Convention Center in Edison, N.J., the EPPA 1999 Taste Show & Exhibition has grown in both exhibitors and attendees. According to Marvin Spira, executive director for the EPPA, registered attendance is up 12% over last year and exhibitors are scheduled to fill more than 400 booths, also up from last year.

Spira said that while 65% of participants are from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, people make the pilgrimage to this show from all parts of the world.

"We have about 30% [of attendees] from different parts of the country and even the world," he said. "We get people from France, Canada, South America. We tend to be a sort of focal point for the industry."

He added while most who attend and exhibit at the show are members, it is open to anyone who wishes to participate. Membership is comprised of both manufacturers and retailers, as well as others, like distributors and brokers, with an interest in the industry.

"Our common target is perishable foods," said Spira. "We encompass all aspects of dairy, deli, bakery and seafood."

While EPPA membership hovers about 400, Spira said, this number can be misleading. He said companies join as a company, not as individuals, meaning one membership could account for many people.

"The small, two-person goat farm in Connecticut is one member, Kraft Foods is one member, the little bodega on the corner in Manhattan is one member, ShopRite [supermarkets] is one member," he said. "They each count as one member and they each have one vote."

Spira believes in this mode of operation because it prevents smaller companies from feeling less important than or bullied by the opinions of the larger companies.

For the 1998 Show, the EPPA had nearly doubled the number of hosts on hand to assist exhibitors and Spira said that number will remain about the same this year.

"The hosts are there to see that the exhibitors are taken care of and comfortable and don't want for anything," he said. "We try to have one for each aisle and the exhibitors know to look for them if they have questions. Too many [hosts] and they would just be bumping into each other."

He added that this year also brings a new floorplan to the show, as the Convention Center has done some remodeling and taken down several walls that in the past had divided EPPA's show floor into different sections. Spira said the new floorplan is more simple and will be easier to navigate.

"We have a relatively small showroom, but it's very concentrated," he said. "This floorplan will be much better. It's much easier."

The EPPA is continuing its practice of not including seminars at the convention itself because of the low attendance they had received in the past. Spira said for many of the attendees, the show is a day trip, sometimes even just a morning trip.

"They come for three or four hours and then go back to work," he said. "So for them to spend an hour or so of that time in a seminar really cuts into their day. The time element is so critical with everybody today, they just don't have that time to spare. We have gotten much better attendance holding our seminars at different times throughout the year."

He added the EPPA tries to schedule two to four seminars per year. There is already one planned for seafood in February and bakery will be covered in the spring.

"We'll probably focus on specialty cakes and cake decorating, so it will be real hands-on," he said of the bakery seminar. "It's an important part of the supermarket economy today because [consumers] just love the in-store bakery and [so do] the executives of the stores because of the very high profit margin there."

Spira said the objective each year is to focus on what's hot in the industry because members rely on the event as an information source on trends and pertinent issues. He said members will come to the show searching for ways to better their business.

"This is for the year 2000," he said. "So anyone who comes to the show is making their plans for next year. We always try to reflect and explore the trends."

With that in mind, Spira said, the basic focus for this year will be on food service in the supermarket, specifically the take-home market because "it's there, it's important, it's growing."

According to Spira, the category really began about five or six years ago when the term "home-meal replacement" came into being. He said the focus started with the supermarket executives who began to recognize the growing number of meals that were not prepared in the home.

"All of a sudden over 50% of meals [came from] outside of the home and, well, that doesn't bode well for the supermarket industry," said Spira. "So [the executives] started saying 'Let's keep our customers in our store. They're buying their groceries, they're buying their produce, they're buying their milk and then on the way home they stop at Pizza Hut.' So they said 'Wait a minute, they're here already. Why can't we give them a meal as good as or better than what they are getting for takeout on the way home?"'

As with any startup, Spira said, everybody wanted to concentrate on it and get excited about it and there was "a good movement in increased sales of takeout foods," but the executives realized they weren't making a lot of profit and that cooled them down a little bit, he said. At this point, Spira said, the executives sat down and started to analyze the problems.

"Of course the problems were in what we call shrink, waste and labor and they've been working to rectify that," he said. "They've been talking to consumers and finding out what they want, they're getting their menus into proportion with what their particular trade is in the store and not offering everything to everybody all the time."

Spira said this was a very important lesson to learn because retailers began with the notion consumers would view more selection as better, and now understand that, sometimes, more is just more. At the same time they've come to learn that menus may need to vary from unit to unit to suit the desires of each particular customer base.

"There are some areas that do beautifully in soups and others that don't do anything in soups," he said. "You can't have a chainwide plan because it just doesn't work that way."

Spira said the quality of the food has increased tremendously as a result of the stores' research efforts. He credits this achievement to their new focus on simple takeout items, emphasizing the whole idea behind takeout anything is simplicity for the consumer.

"[The food is] very good now because people are really concentrating on food for takeout, which is different," he said. "You don't cook the same way, you don't sauce the same way, you don't package the same way. It's very different."

Changes in programs have resulted in increases in business for the supermarket takeout industry, according to Spira, and the margins are now starting to increase as well.

"It's not something that's going to go away," he said. "We all learn in retrospect and say, 'Oh, we should have done this,' but there's no way to know. It's like a good seafood department, or a good deli, poultry or dairy department, what will sell depends on the area, and you learn what that is as you go. It's the same for food service."

Spira has also noticed a trend toward value-added products in many departments and credits this in part to the desire for easy preparation and also to the changing conception of the meaning of homemade.

"The whole attitude of the consumer is changing," he said. "If you do something to a dish at home, even if you just heat it, it's homemade. That happened with cake mixes a long, long time ago. The definition of scratch has changed. Today, scratch could mean you added an egg to it, nobody's going to sift flour, and do the kneading and use spring forms. It just isn't done that way anymore."

Over the coming year, Spira said, the EPPA intends to focus on recruiting more members from smaller, independent stores, ethnic stores in particular.

"Thirty percent of our market is Hispanic," he said. "It is a tremendous business with a lot of potential for growth."