Suan Grant has been busy traveling to national and international food shows, and at the Oklahoma Restaurant Convention & Expo this week she decided to try something new.
To showcase how her jellies could be used, she baked cheesecake — one spiked with Suan's Scotch Bonnet Pepper Jelly, the other with Lemon Mango Pepper Jelly. The delicious result had an unexpected consequence.
“Now restaurants want me to make cheesecake,” laughed Grant, one of about 300 vendors at the event.
The annual expo, held Wednesday and Thursday at the Cox Convention Center, is for people in the food industry and isn't open to the general public. Many attendees own or work for restaurants, but also present were employees of casinos, schools and universities, hospitals and other organizations.
“Anyone that provides food to the public can come,” said Linda Etherton, manager of meetings and events for the Oklahoma Restaurant Association. It's the largest trade show in the state with about 8,000 attendees and an important event for food service and hospitality industry professionals.
Bertha Miller, owner of Miller Gas & Grub in Thomas, said one reason she attended was for the “free grazing.” Roberta Worth, of Vance Air Force Base, came to get fresh ideas for the catering menu at the base's club. And Oklahoma City Zoo's Jessica Austin, operations and catering manager of concessions, and Kyndall Watson, catering manager, were hoping to build relationships with vendors and find new products.
Food and drink
The show is a smorgasbord of food and drink samples: wine and beer, milk and cookies, gelato and cannoli, fried pickles and calf fries, lamb steak and French fries, and just about everything in between. Booths showcasing restaurant equipment and other business necessities are often bypassed for their more delicious neighbors.
Zena Dater, of Oswalt Restaurant Supply, this week had a large booth in prime trade show real estate — directly across from the Culinary Cook-Off, where Oklahoma chefs competed for trophies and cash prizes. It's a spot she earned years ago when she had the idea to have two chefs compete for bragging rights in her booth, a competition that has grown into an attraction all of its own.
Competing chefs are paired with a culinary student for the event and nearly all of the winners have hired their assistant after the show, Dater said.
“It's kind of developed into not only a competition, but a mentoring program,” she said.
Another booth attracting a crowd was Dr Pepper, which was screen printing customized T-shirts on site. With a twist on the tagline “I'm a Pepper,” people were able to insert a word that described them, such as “I'm a Sooner,” “I'm a Cowboy,” or “I'm a Drama Queen.”
For New York-based Roland Food, a specialty foods importer, the opportunity to showcase new products to thousands of people in one place is well worth the cost of the samples, said regional sales manager Kevin O'Laughlin. Tasters who experience the products firsthand are more apt to order for their business, he said.
“It's pretty much an easy sell once they try it,” O'Laughlin said, offering a cannoli and sample of tiramisu.