It’s tasting time!

The 37th annual sofi™ Awards contest start tomorrow, April 2. I like to call them the Oscars of the Specialty Food trade. sofi stands for Specialty Outstanding Food Innovation. We accept submissions for a week. Then a panel of judges from the top of the food world will come to our offices on Wall Street to sample more than 2,000 great foods and beverages submitted by our members – food entrepreneurs from across the U.S. and around the world. The panel will sample and evaluate these amazing products over five days in two sessions. It’s a tough job: they have to taste and evaluate what I figure will be at least 75 chocolates, 70 cheeses, and a dozen pet products. Last year, a judge actually tasted a dog biscuit.

During the first three-day judging session, April 15 – 17, I’m joining the judges for a dinner at Tribeca Grill in downtown Manhattan. Let’s hope someone still has an appetite! One of our sofi judges, Tim Von Hollweg, is the restaurant’s purchasing manager. Tribeca Grill is part of the Myriad Restaurant Group, owner of white-hot Corton and Nobu. Corton was just nominated for its own award, a 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best New Restaurant, and Myraid partner Drew Nieporent was nominated for outstanding restaurateur.

Last year was my first year running the sofis. Seeing those piles of incredible products delivered by the UPS folks every day was a huge shock at first. But once we established a rhythm, ten or 20 more submissions didn’t faze us. I work with a great team, and most are back this year. Marilyn O’Hara, a data expert with a sunny personality who lets no detail go unnoticed, is our data manager. Bruce Tanner, who has a great resume in the food, catering, and special events world, is back as our culinary manager.

In the past few weeks, I’ve talked to several dozen members to help them prepare their entries.  It’s one of my favorite parts of this project. I learn all sorts of tidbits about member companies I don’t otherwise get to know. Today I spoke with a gentleman who has a great-sounding dill product, and another, David Gilbrook from California Lavash. I met David at our Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco this year. David is submitting four flavors of lavash, and had some nice news from the Winter Show. He made connections there that led to deals to sell lavash in 240 Safeways, 90 Whole Foods, and at Nugget Markets, a specialty retailer based in Woodland, Ca. Yesterday I did a little hand holding with a woman who has a chocolate product she is convinced will win the sofi Gold Award for Outstanding Chocolate. I hope it does!

—Louise Kramer

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