After I'd been at the National Association Of Convenience Stores' annual convention for about five minutes, a dude dressed as Sasquatch threw a mousepad advertising beef jerky at me. Also, several scantily clad women had already given me free candy and energy drinks. And you, imaginary reader, had the nerve to ask me "Why would you want to go to a convention for the nation's convenience and petroleum retailers?" For this Taste Test Special Report, of course. Also: Ain't no party like a convenience-store party, cuz a convenience-store party don't stop.
Seriously, though, I had no idea this convention existed until a month ago, when the fine folks behind Purple Stuff, the pro-relaxation calming elixir (slogan: "lean with it") sent me an e-mail saying we should check it out. They were right. Though it wasn't quite the candy insanity of the All Candy Expo (also held in Chicago at McCormick Place), it was still pretty otherworldly. Thousands, maybe millions, of companies descended on the gigantic north and south halls, doing their best to sell the nation's gas stations and quik-stops their wares, from hot dogs to those hot-dog-roller things that keep them warm. Want information on how to start a Burger King franchise? You've come to the right place. Want to get your picture with barely dressed women and/or a guy in a polar-bear costume? That's here, too. But first, since the Purple Stuff people hipped us to this thing, watch this video.
That's as good a place to start as any at the NACS show. There was a whole cluster of energy-drink producers, each offering a different angle and most featuring ladies in skimpy outfits. One of the first that got our attention—oh, I attended this fab fest with A.V. Club staff editors David Wolinsky and Emily Withrow—was a product called Sex Drive, the "premium energy drink" you've been waiting for. Its sales material claims that it "increases libido in both Men and Women" and "enhances blood flow to vital organs." A pitchman at the booth told us—after offering us a sample, of course—that the company had been doing really well, but they'd been having trouble getting placement in some more conservative stores. Across the way from Sex Drive was a guy selling another libido enhancer, but he had no ladies to help him—and no customers to speak of. He complained to us that all his attention was being pulled away by bikini babes. Which was probably true. Rock Star had a huge booth with Coyote Ugly types (in fairness, I saw only one tramp stamp) dishing out drinks. Monster Energy Drink had a giant bar, complete with chainlink fence, and a whole gaggle of ladies ready to get their picture taken with us. My face in this photo is completely ironic, okay?
It was madness, I tells ya, madness! In other energy-drink news, we were hipped to Redneck Punch, whose booth was manned by a couple of guys who didn't seem very redneck-y. They certainly didn't look like the guy on the can.
But their product was actually pretty tasty. I had some peach iced tea, and Dave enjoyed some creamy root beer. Neither tasted like hayseeds or trailer parks. If you're unwilling or unable to wait for the caffeine buzz that a canned drink provides, we had a nice chat with the guys behind Primer, a spray that delivers as much caffeine in one spray as a third of a cup of coffee. (Spray the whole bottle in your mouth, and you're in serious trouble, I'd imagine.) They have the same parent company as Relix and Metal Maniacs magazines, which is pretty funny. We didn't try any on the spot, but we brought some home. (Along with a ton of other stuff. We left with bags of goodies, many of which will end up in future Taste Tests.)
What else can you see at the NACS show? How about beer and cigarettes? Those are a big part of any convenience store's repertoire, and companies big and small were represented. Phillip Morris had one of the biggest, most exciting booths—we walked through smoke (not cigarette smoke, but still) to get in, and we could have had our pictures taken on a motorcycle, or played a shooting game… But who's that off in the corner, dressed like background characters from Mad Men? They look like they just stepped out of the stables, and they'd like to talk to you. Burberry pants. Sweaters. They look so responsible, so boring, so lonely… They're the people hired by the cig manufacturers to give you the bad news about smoking. Unsurprisingly, they're alone.
Another huge booth: Red Bull, which seemed mostly interested in shilling its new Red Bull Simply Cola. We got a few cans, which we'll be taste-testing soon. Apparently it's only available at Safeway right now. They had a huge area decked out like a club, complete with a DJ (playing The Wiseguys' "Ooh La La") and bartender, plus girls with Red Bull refrigerated backpacks handing out samples.
Where to next, where next? There's so much sensory overload at these conventions that it's difficult to keep our bearings. We can only pep up with energy-drink samples so many times before we crash. (Though many of the products claim "no crash!") Should we tell you about the "extreme" potato chips Xgrindz? The new Miller Lite can that's sorta shaped like a bottle? My head is spinning, and there's a guy dressed as a sperm handing out Durex condoms, and his lady partner is handing out little "personal massagers" to ladies. Free vibrators!
But let's be honest, we're mostly here for the candy and snacks. There's more jerky than you can shake a three-foot jerky stick at, so we'll skip that. J&J; Snack Foods is again in the house (they're at all these things), and they've got a couple of crazy new innovations you'll probably see at the movie theater soon: SuperPretzel Poppers are basically soft pretzel balls filled with cheese (pretty damn delicious, even though Emily's squirted all over her clothes), and a combination Cinnabon and pretzel that just looked too insane to eat after all that energy drink.
In slightly edgier news, the Minh company was the only place with the balls to combine two great tastes: cheeseburger and egg roll. That's right, they take the crispy goodness of an Asian appetizer and stuff it with meat and cheese, plus I think I tasted mustard and pickle, too. Shockingly, this thing wasn't half bad. So next time you see some rotating egg rolls at the gas station, stop and look closely. You owe it to yourself. Also on the regular (or should I say "regular") food tip, we were cornered by a really nice lady from Krispy Krunchy Chicken who practically force-fed us tasty fried chicken, the densest biscuit ever, and a ball made of rice and sausage. She really wanted us to know that Krispy Krunchy Chicken is not a franchise. "You don't write a check to Mr. McDonalds every month." Fair enough. Is there any free pizza around here?
There was, but more importantly, there was a Bob Evans Sausage Gravy dispenser. A big monster machine built for doling out sweet, sweet gravy. We were in awe.
But in all honesty, we're mostly here for the candy. We want to know what M&Ms; have on the horizon, and this is the place to find out. In their booth, which featured a racecar, we learned of the upcoming release of two new limited-edition M&M; products—coconut M&Ms; (sounds intriguing), and Strawberried Peanut Butter (a tie-in with the next Transformers movie). Sadly, they had no samples available yet. But we did leave with bags of Snickers, M&Ms;, Starburst (including the upcoming all-red package!), and new Skittles Crazy Cores ("two flavors in each piece").
But we'll save most of that for another day. You'll likely be seeing Taste Tests (and then glucose tests) on some of the following: Pringles Crispy Cracker Stix, Golden Grahams Treats (they're like Rice Krispie treats, but with GG), strawberry Rice Krispie Treats, Honey Nut Cheerios Snack Mix ("may help reduce the risk of heart disease!"), limon Corn Nuts, jalapeno cheddar Combos, and lots more. My desk is a wreck right now.
I'll leave you with this photo of brave David Wolinsky, who had his hair styled by the ladies of Axe Body Spray, whose company has expanded into the hair-product market. Just another workday here at Taste Test Labs.