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More than 400 candy and snack vendors showcased their products at the 2010 Sweets & Snacks Expo at McCormick Place.

Candy defies recession: new treats galore at sweets, snacks expo

by Kelsey Bjelland and Erin Steuber
May 26, 2010

The 14th annual Sweets & Snacks Expo opened with a sugar rush at McCormick Place Tuesday. More than 450 vendors showcased new products and gave free samples of chocolate, candy and savory snacks, an increase of 7.5 percent from last year’s expo according to its sponsor, the National Confectioners Association.

Growth of the Expo reflects encouraging numbers from SymphonyIRI Group, which reported a 3.6 percent gain in the confectionery industry and a 7.8 percent growth in salty snacks over 2009. Last year, nearly 6,000 new confectionery, snack, cookie and cracker products debuted to meet consumer demand, according to the confectioners association.

Vendors at the 2010 Sweets & Snacks Expo are keeping up with the trends, rolling out more than 2,000 innovative eats for sampling.

Mars Chocolate North America, a division of Mars Inc., has one of the most prominent and colorful displays at the show. It's premiering M&M’s Pretzel Chocolate Candies, a sweet and salty snack that has been well-received with customers so far, according to vice president of development Tim Quinn. Mars also is introducing Snickers Peanut Butter Squared and Snickers Extreme, with 5 grams of protein, set to hit stores this fall.

Dove Chocolate Brand, owned by Mars, operates a fountain of milk and dark chocolate with offerings of pineapple, strawberries, pretzels, dried apricots and shortbread cookies for dipping. The company launched a new sugar-free version of its Dove Chocolate with Peanut Butter Crème.

Chocolate is a recurring theme of the show, from gummy bears and pumpkin marshmallows to Tabasco-filled truffles and pretzel-sandwiched mints. Hershey Co. has a chocolate milk bar for folks to wash down sweets.

Other vendors are trumpeting healthier items said not to enlarge waistlines.

Innovative Candy Concepts, based in Atlanta, Ga., unveiled its Cheaters Squeeze Candy, packs of sugar-free, fat-free liquid candy with only 11 calories. The candy packs, which retail for about $1 each, are designed to “cheat obesity and diabetes,” according to company CEO Armand Hammer. However, in place of sugar, the candy is made mostly of xylitol, a sugar alcohol that is not fully digestible and can have negative side effects, including digestive problems. Cheaters are available for sampling in four flavors, strawberry cheesecake, blueberry cobbler, banana crème pie and cinnamon apple pie.

Another company, Maramor Chocolates, offers lines of milk and dark chocolate fortified with omega-3s and probiotics, designed as a combined regimen of health and indulgence. The ½-oz. chocolate bars are sold in one-week supplies for around $5.99.

Barry Gasaway, vice president of sales for Marmor Chocolates, said the added element of nutrients makes chocolate a popular item during a still-slow economy.

“If they have less money to spend . . . they’re a little more careful how they spend it,” he said. “There’s a lot of purchasing going on in a much more intelligent way right now.”

With or without health benefits, the success of many candy companies has been undeterred by the recession. Christopher Warman, president of Fudgie Wudgie Fudge and Chocolate Factory in Pittsburgh, said he's has added more than 700 employees and $10 million in revenue since 2008.

“People are looking for immediate gratification,” Warman said. “They want something indulgent and really high-end.”

During the first day of the expo, Warman said, he received requests for more than 5,000 new accounts for his fudge and newly-introduced, chocolate-covered fudge squares, which have been in development since 1989 and retail for $1 to $2 each. He plans to add another 500 employees this year to his team of 1,100.

Joshua Gentine, president of Cholive Co. of Milwaukee, said he started his business selling olive-shaped chocolate truffles when the recession hit rock-bottom.

“Going into bars and restaurants 18 months ago wasn’t easy at all,” said Gentine. “The reception has been very, very nice, and now we’re seeing an upswing across the board.”

Serving up a miniature martini that one taster described as a “liquid peanut butter cup,” Gentine said several Chicago hotels including the Palmer House Hilton have started garnishing their sweet drinks with Cholives, which retail for $5 to $6 for an eight-pack.

The Expo, which runs through Thursday, is open to the trade only, and buyers make up about 80 percent of the attendees. Merchandisers, category managers, operations managers, store owners, importers, exporters, suppliers and brokers also attend. The registration fee was $50 if they signed up for the show before April 9. Vendors are required to be members of the National Confectioners Association, which has a $1200 annual membership fee.

Formerly the All Candy Expo, the show changed its name this year to reflect the addition of salty snacks vendors three years ago.

The next Sweets & Snacks Expo will be held at McCormick Place May 24-26, 2011.