Not just anybody could sneak into the Clover Mountain Foods Fall Food Show held Tuesday in Suite B at Heinz Field, but almost everybody in the region will eventually taste the products on display there.
There were booths for Hormel, Nestle, Butterball and Cheesecake Factory — big names in the food industry that supply supermarkets and restaurants. The guy at the Jacqueline’s Gourmet Cookies stand leaned over a waist-high divider to chat with a Kraft foodservice employee working the next booth.
Local food companies showed up, too.
5 Generation Bakers, the growing McKees Rocks business that makes Jenny Lee Cinnamon Swirl Bread for an estimated 3,000 supermarkets, had a spot not far from one for Black-N-Gold Cheesecake Co., the Monroeville dessert business run by former Steeler J.T. Thomas.
The vendors — about 100 of them — hoped to catch the eye of some 600 buyers representing supermarkets, restaurants, even farmers markets looking for new products and new suppliers.
Most of all, the Clover Mountain customers need inspiration.
“They wanted more ideas, new ideas,” explained James Crawford, chairman and CEO of the Bridgeville distribution company that delivers supplies across several states and holds similar gatherings every six months or so.
The shows started out much smaller three decades ago.
Clover Mountain, formerly known as Clover Hill Foods, is a midsized distributor. Two of the industry’s major players, Sysco and US Foods, are in the process of completing a merger valued at $8.2 billion, a move that could open up opportunities for other companies even as it creates one massive distributor with annual sales of $65 billion.
But while the industry structure shifts, so, too, do the flavors and priorities demanded by grocers and consumers.
Looking out over the colorful array of breads, cookies, prepared meats and even packaging materials on display Tuesday, Mr. Crawford focused on more than the free samples — although there were plenty of those. One buyer announced to a packed elevator arriving at the show that she’d skipped breakfast because the event always had lots of food to sample.
Mr. Crawford saw trends at work when he walked the show aisles. He stopped at the Mel-O-Cream Donuts International Inc. booth to talk about how the Springfield, Ill.-based company has addressed the problem of finding workers willing to show up in the middle of the night to make doughnuts.
“Nobody wants to do it anymore,” he said.
Mel-O-Cream still makes frozen, unbaked doughnuts that can be finished in the wee hours at stores, but it also makes finished doughnuts that are delivered frozen. Supermarkets can frost and decorate them however they like once the treats are thawed.
That saves the stores money, but Gary Weber, regional sales consultant, said it also makes it simpler to restock with fresh product in the afternoon. “Your second biggest time to sell doughnuts in the grocery store is from 4 to 7 p.m.,” said Mr. Weber, describing the times that people stop in for dinner groceries and decide to pick up something for the office or the family.
He had some quirky ideas about decorating doughnuts with bits of cereal from broken boxes, even using Grape-Nuts to tempt people who like crunch but can’t eat nuts.
Labor costs are an issue in supermarkets, but so is food safety, said Mr. Crawford, who stopped at the Hormel booth to point out a pre-packed party tray with salami and pepperoni slices, along with crackers — all individually wrapped in plastic. That’s assembled in a plant to a standardized size.
“It’s a much safer product,” he said, adding, “You’ll see that theme over and over.”
While that trend might conflict with another major food trend — the push for locally sourced product — Mr. Crawford had a theory. He said local goods, including those available through Clover Mountain, tend to be more directly pulled from the agricultural side, with meats, cheese and produce coming from farms in a region.
He said, “The things that typically require processing are generally done better in a highly inspected, highly centralized environment.”
Meanwhile, the vendors at the show were patiently waiting for buyers to notice their attractive piles of food.
Gary Miller represented the Chico Bakery, maker of Julia’s Pepperoni Rolls. The Morgantown, W.Va., company sells its products from Buffalo, N.Y., to Atlanta, although sometimes it takes a bit of explaining.
“It’s a regional food. So some people, you have to tell them what it is,” said Mr. Miller, who described the roll as a concoction developed as a snack that packed well in coal miners’ lunch pails.
Mountaineer football fans can buy the company’s pepperoni rolls for $5 each at West Virginia University games, Mr. Miller said, which he said is a dollar cheaper than a beer. He said about 150 cases worth sell every game.
Across the aisle at the food show, Bridgeville marketing company Black & Gold Fan had set up a table showing off its newest products. Sauces carrying the name Big Ben have been out since 2005, with part of the proceeds supporting Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s foundation.
This year, Roadside Ribs, the company run by John and Katie Kosko has launched another set of new products from another local celebrity — Pittsburgh Dad.
In the online sitcom, actor Curt Wootton has fun with Pittsburghese and Pittsburgh traditions. Director Chris Preksta and Mr. Wootton created the series, and Ms. Kosko sat next to one of their relatives on an airplane trip earlier this year. She and her husband ended up pitching the idea to the co-creators and now they’re selling Pittsburgh Dad hot dipping mustard, steak sauce and hot sauce with part of the proceeds going to charity.
They’ve also launched a barbecue sauce from former Pirates player Manny Sanguillen.
The celebrity factor didn’t matter to Garold Carpenter, who came from Flushing, Ohio, to look for ideas for his pizza restaurant. “For me, it’s all about taste,” he said as he tried some of the sauces. He’s thinking about expanding his menu, although he also noted that just about anything can go on a pizza.
“This caught my eye,” he said, as Ms. Kosko handed him a bottle of the Manny Sanguillen Hall of Fame Sauce to take home and experiment with.
Teresa F. Lindeman: email@example.com or at 412-263-2018.