Best of the Best

Talk about over eating. I just got back from the NASFT’s (National Association of Specialty Food Trade)  Silver SOFI judging in NYC and man was I overwhelmed. The association picks top foods each year in various food categories that become eligible to win a Gold SOFI at the annual, super-duper mega food show–the Fancy Food Show–at the Javits Center in NYC.  We selected over 100 winners in over 25 food categories and tasted over 1,500 foods from around the world. There were nine of us–from all walks of the food world; from a specialty food shop in LA, to a food writer from O Magazine; from culinary chefs from a major restaurant group in NYC to the marketing director from Midwest and south Winn Dixie grocery store chain.  And we had a blast–we ate, drank, bonded and debated, sometimes quite loudly, about who was best in class.  I’ve included some pictures below to give you an idea of what it’s like.

To be asked to judge was quite an honor for us here at WFM.  This is not something we do every year. And what a thrill–this was like being in a room with tons of great actors and getting to pick the ones you thought were the best.  And while this was a gastronomic blast, it was serious stuff. Here were entries from big companies to mom and pops and our shoulders were heavy.  Winning a SOFI award is a big deal in the food business. Selecting a product for a Silver SOFI can thrust a relative unknown product to overnight-sensation status in weeks. Our taste buds and business heads needed full attention to detail.

Here’s a sneak peak at how it worked.  I’ll use chocolate judging as a for-instance. First of all, this was CHOCOLATE in caps…150 chocolates from all over the world.  Imagine walking into a large room with 3 very long tables of just chocolate!  Being a choco-holic, I was in heaven.  Of course taste was paramount but packaging, price and whether we might actually be able to sell the chocolate were all part of the equation.  

Besides the generous chocolate samples on the table, we had the product sheet in which the manufacturer described the chocolate and had the wholesale price, suggested retail and sundry other info.  And this was no saunter through chocolate land.  We had 25 minutes.  Thank god none of us were diabetic.  You had to be focused and clear.  The best approach?  Taste small tidbits, rinse with water, take a deep breath, repeat.   Taste bud over load was common.  Not to mention heart racing.  I had enough caffeine in 25 minutes to last a week.

You may ask, how in the world could we actually taste all the products and make good judgements…especially with the time constraints?

Good question.  Let me say first, it was not easy.  You had to stay focused.  You had to be aware that your vote was going to greatly affect someone’s well being.  This was serious stuff.  Like I said, SOFI awards are big deals.

But the judges in the room–every single one of us–had years and years of culinary experience and we knew when something was better than something else.  You just did.  Whether it was the pairing of ingredients or  texture, some items just plain stood out.   Plus, it wasn’t all just about the taste.  We factored in the price and packaging–and honestly, sometimes even though something was really good, if it was priced too high for us to sell, it was deemed–at least for me–a negative.  And what was even more impressive, in almost every food category the voting was pretty clear across the board.  And when it was not, we had clear, healthy debate and a winner emerged. 

Overall, it was an amazing experience.  Not to mention the great performance by the NASFT staff and chefs.  They sliced, diced, baked, and prepared a ton of food–all in seemingly a matter of minutes, plowing through 3 days and 25 food categories like a Saturday night at a well tuned fine dining restaurant.   

And we’re not finished.  We go back down to NYC to judge best product line and a few other special categories in early June.  I’ll report on that later.  But clear trends with the Silver finalists emerged.  2010 is the year of the truffle and the fig,  plus Indian and Asian flavors made a clear statement too.  Check out the winners and more information about the NASFT at www.specialtyfood.com/sofi/2010-silver-finalists.  You’ll already see some of the winners in our Woodstock store and at WFM Mail Order! 

Patrick

1 Comment

Linda GorinJune 25th, 2010 at 10:14 PM

It is so interesting to read about the judging process for the Sofi Awards! I am having San Diego CEO’s taste some of the Sofi Silver Finalist products (which you probably judged) and comment on them for my blog series on the Sofi Silver Finalists. I would love to put a link to your blog in my final post about the Sofi Gold winners for 2010.