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The longest trek for a piece of candy: The Sweets & Snacks Expo 2010

Logo of the National Confectioners Association.

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I haven’t had a morsel of sweets pass my lips since the middle of February. That is until today, when I attended the National Confectioners Association’s Sweets & Snacks Expo 2010. With more than 450 companies rolling out products new and old, this is where anyone who wishes they could be Charlie Bucket would want to be to make their wildest fantasies come true.

The Sweets & Snacks Expo couldn’t have been further from my mind 67 days ago, when my stomach was turning in on itself after I indulged in one heavy duty cupcake. Always willing to soothe my sweet tooth (read: all my teeth fall into the category of “sweet tooth”), I developed quite a habit of eating sweets. In many cases, I never had to try very hard to get them: Be it in the workplace or in school, some delicious morsel was always within reach. I don’t consider myself much of a foodie, but I get ecstatic when it comes to sugar-coated snacks.

That is until one fateful night in February, where my I pushed my tolerance for sweets to the limit with one rich cupcake. Delicious as it was, I figured it was time to give my sweet tooth and body a break from confectionary cuisine for a little while. Sure, it was hard at first. The endless free treats passed around in school were enough to give me an ulcer. Same with the sheer number of candy and sweet ads on TV, in the paper, and just about everywhere I turned. I couldn’t go into a supermarket or convenience store without hitting a wall… of brightly-colored packages containing some creative combination of chocolate, caramel, peanut and/or nougat.

Somehow I persevered. For about a month, I had no set end date in sight. That is, until I remembered the Sweets & Snacks Expo was to be held in May right here in Chicago. I filled out a press pass application soon thereafter, and counted down the days until candy and I could be together again.

That day came around a lot quicker than I anticipated, and suddenly May 25 became the present. But, I had a problem. Or many problems. I had class in Evanston until the afternoon. I also had my school things with me, and I could not bring them the convention. The convention was at the McCormick Place, practically a foreign country from out in Evanston. And the convention ended at 5 p.m.

This would be the final push in my candy odyssey for candy heaven, and, yes, it would end in a physical journey.

I turned to Google maps to see if I could make it to the convention center in a timely manner. Google informed me it would take about an hour to get to McCormick Place from my apartment using a convoluted route.

I will never trust Google maps again. (That is, until the next time I’m too lazy to do a little more digging for directions.) The trek required three transfers to get somewhere not remotely close to the convention center. But, I saw no other way of getting there.

First, I had to make it home from Evanston, which required a haul on two el lines. I departed my apartment at 3 p.m., and arrived at Soldier Field sometime after 4 p.m. Having never been to the convention center, I didn’t know a proper way of getting there, so I briskly walked south towards it, bypassing tourists in their silly hats and tucked-in shirts.

Eventually, I made it to some deserted back-lot behind McCormick Place. I saw the lot in front of a massive building with no foreseeable entrance, and a bridge to my right. I ran towards the bridge, my calves burning as I sped by joggers. My spirits were high until I noticed the bridge led to a path that didn’t put me any closer to the convention center.

I turned around and made my way across the empty lot. I stopped to chat with a truck driver who was perched in his vehicle puffing away on what looked like a “job well done” cigar.

“How do I get in?” I asked.

“In where?” He replied.

“The Sweets & Snacks Expo.”

“Well,” he said with a chuckle, “your best bet is to walk up that hill. You’ll see a set of stairs that will lead you to the roof. You should find an entrance in there.”

“Great! Thanks!” I yelped, darting off towards the monolithic building. As I made my way up the stairs, I fought off every thought that screamed, you’re not supposed to be here! The candy was calling, and I had to answer the call.

On the roof I got a tiny taste of the convention center – a sprawling hunk of pristine metal in the shape of several buildings. I’d walked onto some sort of loading dock, complete with empty space, storage areas, and lots of complex vehicles for heavy lifting.

After walking around confused, I caught a worker and asked where the expo was.

“That’s in the West Building.”

There is a West Building. This thing gets bigger every second.

“You’re gonna want to walk in that direction,” he said, pointing east, “and walk straight down until you get to a set of stairs. Walk down them and you’ll get to the building.”

I obliged, and eight minutes later, found myself in the serene, air condition center. I had made it!

Or so I thought. I kicked up my heels, as it was nearing 4:30 and I had candy on my mind. Yet, I had no idea where I was going, and wound up in one of the many large corridors of McCormick Place. I found an Information Desk, and crossed my fingers for the proper information.

“Where do I go to get a press pass?” I kindly enquired.

“They’re closed,” replied one of the bemused info. desk employees.

My body sank. I had come so far. The air conditioning practically welcomed me with open arms. After some back and forth, I walked in the direction I came, defeated.

Yet, something seemed wrong. I found another Information Desk and asked there, this time, framing my question differently:

“Where is the Sweets & Snacks Expo?”

“It’s in the West Building.”

This place keeps going!

“Just go up the escalator and cross the bridge.”

“Thank you!” I replied.

And I was off. Up the escalator. Across the bridge. I could smell a hint of sugar in the air, beckoning me further. I saw the sign. That sweet sign with the logo for the expo on it.

I did it. And with less than half an hour to spare.

Soon enough, I made my way to the press box, where a bearded fellow named John helped me with my press pass. I thanked him with every bit of gratitude left in me, and with a newfound spring in my step, headed into the expo.

It was like Halloween. There were massive decorations, people were carrying bags filled with treats, and there was a red, bulbous Jelly Belly mascot greeting people. It was like a dream, mostly because I had yet to physically taste anything. I was just too overwhelmed by the smells, the brightly-colored tables, the sheer sight of free candy around every corner. I stumbled around the convention floor without a definitive guide of where to go.

I knew I had to make a decision and break my fast, and fast. I ended up in front of the table for Valor Chocolates. Founded in Villajoyosa, Spain back in 1881, Valor has built up quite a pedigree as a gourmet chocolatier. The company’s history was the furthest thing from my mind when I planted my eyes on the stunning pieces of chocolate placed on their table. My hand lurched out for a piece of what I found out was sugar-free dark chocolate.

So, not quite the sugar-packed candy crunch I was looking for, but it certainly was a treat: The small square of chocolate was so packed with flavor, my taste buds could hardly notice any lack of sugar. And that’s what counts.

A few bites later, and I felt like a victor. I strutted through the show with a brimming sense of accomplishment. My hair may have been glazed with sweat and my excitable demeanor may have been noticeably different than the many professionals swarming the building, but I could have cared less.

I snaked my way through the convention hall, picking and choosing what I’d taste next. A fruit-jelly stuffed marshmallow from Gudfud, a piece of crisp rice chocolate from Rovas, a milk-chocolate covered gummy bear.

But the biggest surprise came ten minutes to midnight… or 5 p.m. I wound up in front of a table for Bonomo Turkish Taffy, which was decked out with retro-inspired packs of candy. Soon enough, Bonomo’s President and CEO Kenneth B. Wiesen popped up to tell me about, “the most anticipated return of candy.”

Wiesen gave an impassioned pitch for his storied candy, showing off photos of old TV ads for the candy, pulling his product into various shapes, and pointing out a group of customers reminiscing over the taffy who appeared right on cue.

Yet, Wiesen couldn’t have sold the candy better than the item did. Though a roll of it looks dull and plain next to, say, a Tootsie Roll, Bonomo’s taffy wins when it comes to taste. The little roll seems to release a small slab of taste with each satisfying chew that’s not as overpowering as a Tootsie Roll, and will certainly leave you craving for more. And with a variety of fruit flavors, Bonomo may have something for everyone.

The all-encompassing power of Bonomo Turkish Taffy may explain why the product has been absent for so long. Tootsie Roll Industries acquired the candy in 1980, and discontinued it in 1989. It took Wiesen about 15 years to get the rights for Bonomo, and the man seems ready to bring it back to candy lovers everywhere.

As for this candy lover, I made a b-line to the Icee booth for a Green Apple Icee just before the convention closed for the day. Though I’d only gotten a small taste of the convention, I headed out with my head held high and the knowledge that tomorrow would bring more time and a better traveling route for day two of the Sweets & Snacks Expo.

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