ATLANTA — The Show & Sell Center is always a highlight of the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association's annual seminar and expo, hosted here at the Georgia World Congress Center this week. It offers attendees a central place to check out some of the hottest trends and best ideas in fresh food merchandising, and that's no accident.
It's the culmination, the embodiment, of nearly a year's worth of ideas brewed, swapped and honed by a team of leading retailers.
Crunch time comes when the more than 50 volunteers — including retailers and other food industry representatives — arrive at the show site and begin to cook, coordinate and pull things together, literally and figuratively, in less than 48 hours.
“It's like doing a remodel in two days, or in a day and a half,” one retailer-volunteer said.
And it's done under conditions often less than ideal, IDDBA Executive Director Carol Christison pointed out.
“An event of this size in the heart of a convention center is a huge undertaking,” Christison told SN. “We have to deal with heat and humidity, labor, electrical [supply] and lots of personalities.”
Sometimes daunting situations arise.
“Usually they're related to equipment,” Christison said. “We've had refrigerated cases that quit, air conditioning that died, evaporators that overflowed, and burst pipes that soaked carpets.”
She recounted such a flooding fiasco a few years ago in Las Vegas in the middle of the night. A call from a convention center security guard roused Christison at 2 a.m. She met the cleaning crew and maintenance people at the convention center, where equipment was standing in water and boxes were getting soggy. The crew worked all night to repair things and clean up so the Show & Sell volunteers could continue their set-up when morning broke.
On another occasion, some supplies didn't arrive on time, and chef Chris Koch, on the meals team, had to begin cooking from scratch when he had expected to be working with at least some products that were pre-breaded. Those are the exceptions, though. Koch and Christison told SN most often things go smoothly.
“When I hear the word challenge, it implies to me something that's difficult and that's not usually the case,” said Koch, a restaurant chef and culinary consultant, who runs his own cooking school and has been on the Show & Sell meals team for 13 years.
The most important challenge every year is to figure out what's going to be hot next year, and also reasonably actionable, Koch said.
“We're already thinking about next year when we're at the current year's Show & Sell. We learn a lot from talking to people there.”
The volunteers, divided into four teams — meals, service deli, cheese and bakery — arrive at the show site on Thursday prior to the show's Sunday opening. Then, later the display cases, risers and props are delivered. On Saturday early, sponsored food arrives from a nearby warehouse and fresh produce is sourced, usually from an area produce supplier. Last-minute items often are purchased from local supermarkets.
Meanwhile, beyond the back curtain/wall of the Show & Sell Center, the four teams are setting up four separate, fully operating kitchens. The washing, chopping and slicing soon begins. All the food displayed in the center is prepared on-site. All the preparations are completed on Saturday, sometimes late into the evening. All must be ready when the show floor opens Sunday at noon. The whirl of on-site activity is planned way in advance.
Indeed, brainstorming for the current year's Show & Sell began when all the volunteers met in January at retail accessory supplier Hubert Co.'s facility in Harrison, Ohio. There, the Show & Sell volunteers get to see all of Hubert's new catalog items, which include fixtures, props, risers and other merchandising accoutrements that they'll need.
“That exposure at Hubert is great. It drives our creativity, gets us going,” said Tom LaFera, director of in-store fresh presentations at Wal-Mart Stores, who serves on the Show & Sell deli team.
Benny Morales, a meals team member and a deli specialist at Affiliated Foods, Amarillo, Texas, pointed out that each team is charged with coming up with five to eight sub-themes that fit with the center's main theme.
Christison, who researches the city where the show will be held, usually comes up with a main theme that's tied to the location. She also offers her own suggestions for displays and sub-themes.
“Carol travels so much and brings back ideas,” said Scott Fox, a bakery team member and director of bakery operations at Dorothy Lane Market, Dayton, Ohio. “Carol will give you a nudge and then let you take an idea and run with it. She's brilliant.”
Jody Varrick, manager, cheese department merchandising at SuperValu's Retail-West division and a member of the Show & Sell cheese team, agreed, commenting on Christison's always-positive attitude.
Varrick, who's been on the team for six years, said it doesn't get easier, because the teams always have to be thinking of ways to top what they did last year.
But she praised the team spirit that pervades the volunteers. It wouldn't work without that, she said.
LaFera of Wal-Mart echoed that sentiment.
“Everybody works together so well. Last year was my first year, and I was nervous, but they brought me into the fold just like I'd been there from the beginning,” he said.
Glenda Levsey, who's on the meals team, emphasized that team spirit.
“I think we thrive off each other's strengths,” she said.