'People eat with their eyes' at annual Spring Food Show

Bart Gradich chats with Johnny Price, of Harvest Select, about fish during the Kohl Wholesale Spring Food Show at the Oakley-Lindsay Center on Thursday, Apr. 13, 2017. This year's theme was
Jake Shane 1|
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Apr. 14, 2017 7:00 am

QUINCY -- The jokes never get old for Neil Diamond Conner.

When strangers ask him his name, just before he gets to the "Conner" part, there is bound to be a "Sweet Caroline," "Cracklin' Rosie" or "Cherry, Cherry" reference.

He just smiles. Conner has heard all of the Neil Diamond mentions many times before.

Once the song references work their course, Conner likes to talk about food, and Thursday he was in the right place to do that.

Conner was one of the 165 vendors at the annual Spring Food Show for Kohl Wholesale at the Oakley-Lindsay Center.

"I've been in the food business since I was 15 years old," said Conner, 62, an O'Fallon, Mo.-based food broker for the Core Group, a national food service sales agency headquartered in Chino, Calif.

Conner, who once operated steakhouses in Memphis, Tenn., and St. Louis, said part of his job is to make an existing product better.

"People eat with their eyes -- they really do -- and normally if something looks good, it will taste good to them," he said.

Conner was pushing gyros at Thursday's food show, from the traditional flatbread sandwich to a new-look salad concoction.

Unusual presentations are the norm at an event like the Kohl's Spring Show. Calamari, potato chip-covered chicken breasts and shrimp on a stick were as commonplace as traditional items such as breakfast foods, appetizers and all sorts of sweets and pastries.

Roger Belmonte, a Chicago-based regional sales manager for Brakebush of Westfield, Wis., was attracting quite a bit of attention with his display.

Brakebush's "Tater Chip Tenders" are potato chip-coated chicken tenderloins. "Everyone loves chicken, and everyone loves potato chips" is the company's catchphrase for this relatively new offering that hit the market about nine months ago.

Belmonte calls the new chicken tenders the "Cadillac" of the genre.

"These are really popular in St. Louis," said Territory Sales Manager Tom Potocnjak.

Belmonte will be showcasing the chicken tenders at the National Restaurant Show from May 19 to May 22 in Chicago. The four-day event will draw between 50,000 and 60,000 customers.

Ann Geisler, a food broker for Raterman and Associates in Kirkwood, Mo., was watching over the multitable offerings for Sweet Street Desserts. The display's many kinds of cheesecake proved to be extremely popular with people attending the show.

Geisler, who is involved with "about 100 shows" a year, has her own theory on why desserts are so popular with restaurant customers and owners.

"Dessert is the last thing you will eat at a restaurant, and (owners) want it to make a lasting impression on their customers," Geisler said.

Kohl's Spring Food Show drew its customary 1,500 customers, who were treated to a "ComiKohl"-themed event that saw superheroes scattered about the lobby and across the show floor.

Most of the displays were centered on commodity-priced items, equipment and supplies, beverage and chemical, produce, and center-of-the-plate products for small and large restaurants, taverns, ice cream shops, parks and recreation concession stands, and summer camps.

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