No one under 16 is allowed to enter the Sweets And Snacks Expo, which seems like a cosmic fuck-you to children everywhere. The annual trade show, which serves the candy and snack industries, is a decadent fantasia of salty and sweet treats. Imagine a huge room filled with all the big candy makers and hundreds of small ones, each eager to press chocolates, potato chips, gummies, mints, and so on into your hand or into your convention-approved bag. You’re only allowed to leave with what you can fit in that one bag, so you must choose wisely.
I’ve been attending the convention—held in Chicago—for 12 years, since back when it was called the All Candy Expo. I’m only slightly ashamed to say it’s a highlight of the year for me, as both a sugar addict and a lover of spectacle. I love the mascots, the booths, the lights, the bustle, and the huge piles of candy that last for months.
Imagine this, but come to life:
I’ve been going since before my son—who just turned nine—was even born. I was vaguely stressed that he would be born during the 2010 candy show, and that I wouldn’t be able to attend. (He entered the world about a week beforehand, and I made a quick trip that year.) Now that he’s old enough to covet and appreciate these piles of treats, I find that I’m looking at the Sweets And Snacks Expo with fresh eyes—his eyes. I know what he looks like when we go to the massive Chicago Auto Show—also held at McCormick Place—and I imagine this experience would be exponentially more mind-blowing. Just bringing my bag home today, he was incredulous: “They just gave you all this stuff? Which ones of these are prototypes?” I think he picked up this vocabulary from the car show.
It made me jealous on his behalf, and I was there. So, Sweets And Snacks, here’s a million-dollar idea: Start a yearly raffle with one grand prize, a kid who gets to spend a day or two at the show. Give the money to charity. Willy Wonka himself would approve.
I took it relatively easy on my body this year, choosing my samples carefully. I abused myself only once, at the behest of Takeout editor-in-chief Kevin Pang, when I tried a piece of Grenades Gum Super-Uber Mint, whose packaging says that it has a “blast factor” of 10. I’m not a lover of super strong or super sour candies, and this one tasted like being force-fed a dozen Fisherman’s Friend lozenges—it cleared out my sinuses, but ruined my taste buds for a couple of minutes.
Beyond that, I wanted to focus on the tastiest and/or newest treats found at this year’s Expo. Every year, the usual suspects—meaning the big guys—tend to offer something new (meaning either just released or pre-release), and 2019 is no exception. Hazelnut Spread is the latest M&M’s flavor, and in case it’s not obvious, they’re essentially Nutella M&M’s, without the name attached. (M&M’s is owned by Mars, Nutella by Ferrero.) They taste as you might expect, which is to say they are delicious and creamy—and surprisingly not crazy sweet.
Over at the luxurious, carpeted Hershey’s area, the booth offered soft-serve sundaes and coffee, along with the new Milk Chocolate Emoji Bar—which is just a regular Hershey bar with emojis printed on it—as well as some new Reese’s items. I was excited to see the new Reese’s Take 5 until I realized that they had just repackaged the poor, neglected Take 5 bar yet again. It got a hip new look just a few years ago—and a SXSW party, funnily enough—but now it’s got the Reese’s name to help it along. It’s still tasty.
Reese’s also made some modifications to its classic cup, with a Peanut Butter Lovers and a Chocolate Lovers version—each bar changes the ratio slightly to favor one ingredient over the other. Neither beats the original, but in a pinch I’d still eat the more-chocolate version.
Jelly Belly tends to bring a few new flavors to the show each year, and this time around it’s the “recipe mix.” Apparently they’ve run out of single flavors, so these combine them: There’s chocolate-covered banana (the winner), lemon meringue pie, s’mores, blueberry muffin, and peanut butter and jelly (also quite good). Jelly Belly even stepped away from the bean game this year with Candy Cupcakes, dual-flavored mellocreme candies that are… fine.
On the crunchier side of things, Hardbite Handcrafted-Style Chips, from Canada, offered some of the best straight-up potato chips I’ve ever had. (And that includes current front-runner Great Lakes Potato Chips.) Their branding pitches them to outdoorsy types—a mountain biker on the delicious Avocado & Lime, a campfire on the Smokin’ BBQ—but I’m sure you can enjoy them even if you hate nature. They’re really crunchy and really good. I will also shout out Beanfields for a slightly healthier (I think) option—they’re bean-based chips, and thus fiber- and protein-filled. I buy the regular ones at Whole Foods all the time, but tried the new Cheddar Sour Cream here.
Other notable finds this year: Cotton Cravings, which takes classic cotton candy and infuses some unusual flavors, like Sweet Mesquite Barbecue and Cinnamon Fireball. It’s exactly the kind of thing you’ll want to try at a state fair or amusement park, though likely nowhere else.
I also ate some hunks of Moon Cheese, which from its description—it’s dried hunks of cheese—sounds terrible. It is, in fact, quite delicious if cognitively dissonant. It tastes like cheese, but it doesn’t exactly feel like cheese. But it’s just cheese. I guess that’s why it’s from the moon.
40 Below Joe was invented by the same guy who invented Dippin’ Dots, which should come as no surprise considering that 40 Below Joe is coffee in Dippin’ Dot form. It comes in a bunch of super-sweet flavors, and would probably be incredible on a hot summer day. Its website says “Watch out coffee industry, you’re next,” which seems like a bold claim, all things considered. But you’ve gotta think big when you’re a little booth at a big convention, I guess.
Maybe the best nibble I had this year though was from Hammond’s, whose chocolates I’m usually kind of iffy on. But the Sodapop! Bar, which infuses chocolate with a just-strong-enough cola flavor (and popping candy) was something I hadn’t tasted before and would gladly eat again. And probably again. Two great tastes, as a wise marketing person once said.
I could go on and on, considering the size and scope of Sweets And Snacks, but I don’t want to make my son too jealous, should he decide to read this. (We got our picture taken with guys dressed as giant Nerds candy!) In a few years, when he’s an intern at a prestigious food site, maybe he can land this plum assignment. Until then, I’ll plan on making a yearly pilgrimage. It is my happy place.