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Show Stoppers

As I write this I'm just back from the 2006 NRA show, still sorting through the notes, product releases, photos and reader feedback that I annually gather from that non-stop week in Chicago. As always, manufacturers pull out all the stops when it comes to new product introduction, and editors are flooded with requests to attend scores of press conferences, product kick-offs and other related events.

FM will feature a special section on new products from NRA in the July issue (we'll also provide coverage of our own IDEAS conference next month). But here are a few of the new items that caught my eye while walking the show.

It is amazing how food can bring back memories of one's past. On my first day at McCormick Place, I chanced upon the J&J Snack Foods booth, where the company was sampling its signature soft pretzels and line of Luigi's Italian ices. And I was instantly transported back to the Bronx in the late 1950s.

We lived in an apartment building on Cauldwell Ave. in those years, just up the block from 149th Street. (It was a neighborhood made infamous years later as the location where the movie Fort Apache was filmed, but in those days it was just another diverse Bronx community).

As a six-year old I was allowed to visit the corner soda fountain and candy store, Boulingers, without accompaniment. Soft pretzels were a favorite food, only a nickel apiece then, stacked fresh daily on a wooden rod on the soda fountain counter. If you were lucky enough to have a nickel, it was a snack that would last you well into the day.

Right across 149th Street was St. Mary's Park, where most of my free summer time was spent. The highlight of many long days spent rollerskatingand in the city pools often ended with a walk back through the large park entry gates at Cauldwell. There, Italian ice vendors offered a scoop of their delicacies in small paper cups for five and ten cents a serving. There was never a more delightful end to a perfect summer day than one of these treats.

Meanwhile, back at the 2006 NRA Show, J&J favored showgoers with new flavors of both items. They're still crowd pleasers, and it just goes to show that while some things change, some things will always remain the same.

Speed cooking equipment continues to evolve, and several companies demonstrated advances in this area, looking to help operators streamline production and bring more versatility to retail menus. A good example is the new Electrolux "air-o-speed" programmable combi oven that adds zoned microwave power to traditional steam and convection cooking capabilities. Geared to batch cooking, the company claims cooking times are reduced by 50 percent and also notes that the unit features an automatic cleaning cycle as an additional convenience.

Speaking of convenience, it was clear the product development teams at Tyson Foods have been hard at work to bring more convenience to the beef and pork lines the company gained with its acquisition of IBP a few years ago. It was busy sampling new, fully-cooked lines of smoked meats-beef brisket, pulled beef and pulled pork-as well as a new 3-oz.-sized portion of the fully cooked beef short ribs it introduced two years ago. The latter promises to be a favorite choice for catered events where a higher-end entree is wanted but food cost must still be controlled.

Food safety continues to drive a lot of new product development. Hormel Foods, another center-ofthe-plate innovator, announced a new line of "Natural Choice" allnatural deli meats with reduced sodium content and extended shelf life despite the elimination of preservatives. The latter feature is made possible by the company's pioneering work with high pressure technology to destroy bacterial pathogens mechanically during processing. Its work in this area won it an NSF Food Safety Leadership Award earlier this year.

There were several new food safety products on display over at the DayMark booth, including a variety of gloves to protect kitchen workers from burns, knife cuts and other common injuries. As someone whose first foodservice job entailed a daily regimen of oil filtering, and the associated arm splatter burns that often entails, the SiliGlove demo proved especially fascinating, with visitors marveling as the booth attendant openly put his hand into hot fryer oil while describing the glove lines' advantages.

Finally, let's not forget advances in merchandising. While laminar-flow cooling "air curtains" have been in use for years, Hatco Corp. is now offering similar designs for heated displays with its "Flav-R-Savor" cabinet. The larger model is designed to handle two full size sheet pans, with half size pan models also available, as is an optional humidity maintenance unit. Doorless, the cabinet offers customers immediate access to product while ensuring that hot food temperatures are maintained at appropriate levels.

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