Take Me to Your Feeder: Welcome to the world's largest candy convention. Be advised: Resistance is futile.

Take Me to Your Feeder: Welcome to the world's largest candy convention. Be advised: Resistance is futile.
William Rice
More than 550 candy and snack companies came to this year's Sweets & Snacks Expo at McCormick Place in Chicago.

For a trade show that's supposed to be promoting the sale of happiness, the scene at the National Confectioners Association's annual Sweets & Snacks Expo at Chicago's McCormick Place is, well, grim. It's true that excessive cheerfulness is hard to come by at 8 a.m., even when there's free coffee, but the crowd in the grand ballroom, comprised mostly of grocery buyers and distributors, appears nearly lifeless. They sit silently in the ranks of long tables, each row punctuated by tiny plates of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Hershey's Kisses, York Peppermint Patties and miniature Kit Kats. Every now and then, someone will absentmindedly grab a piece of candy, but mostly the freebies go ignored.

Everyone is listening, some more intently than others, to Steve Matthesen, an executive at the Nielsen Company who has been brought in to deliver a keynote speech on "The State of the Confectionery and Snack Industry." Matthesen has never actually worked in the confectionery and snack industry, mind you (though he did serve in the U.S. space program); his twin areas of expertise are marketing and statistics.

"It's pretty ugly out there," Matthesen informs his drowsy audience. He will use the word "ugly" at least five more times during his fifteen-minute talk. Retail sales in 2010, he points out, were down from the prior year. And 2011's shaping up even worse.

Professor Sauernoggin works the Toxic Waste Candy booth at the recent Sweets & Snacks Expo at McCormick Place in Chicago.
William Rice
Professor Sauernoggin works the Toxic Waste Candy booth at the recent Sweets & Snacks Expo at McCormick Place in Chicago.
Jill Robbins developed HomeFree cookies so that her son, who has multiple food allergies, would be able to enjoy snacks with his friends.
William Rice
Jill Robbins developed HomeFree cookies so that her son, who has multiple food allergies, would be able to enjoy snacks with his friends.

This comes as news to precisely no one. But, hey, it could be worse! They could be selling cars. Or yachts. Or private islands. In comparison, pushing buck-fifty candy bars doesn't seem so bad.

"You sell indulgences," Matthesen soothes. "Sweets and snacks are inexpensive, and they make you feel good." Also news to no one; "inexpensive indulgence" is one of the bywords of the candy and snack industry.

Even amid the overall downturn, there have been rays of sweet and/or salty sunshine. Chocolate and potato chips were two of the biggest-growing categories in all of food retail last year, showing an improvement of 4 percent over 2009. But when you're used to growing 10 percent every year, 4 percent ain't so hot. In fact, it's downright lousy.

Above Matthesen's head, on the ballroom ceiling, magenta and white lights swirl in an endless pattern. They resemble nothing so much as Good & Plenty, those medicinal-looking capsules of candy-coated black licorice that for a time were manufactured in St. Louis (they're now part of the Hershey Company). This does nothing to lift the mood of despair: Is there anyone alive who actually likes Good & Plenty?

But wait! Matthesen has some good news!

People are still shopping at Whole Foods Markets, and they will pay a premium, provided they think a product is good for them.

Take Greek yogurt. It costs twice as much as regular yogurt. In the past year, its market share has grown by more than 10 percent, and its revenues have doubled, while sales of non-Greek yogurt have pretty much stagnated.

And that can happen for candy manufacturers, too!

Right now, says Matthesen, the average retail price of premium candy — you know, like the stuff made from high-quality cacao beans handpicked in the Amazon jungle and guaranteed to reduce your blood pressure, melt off body fat and make your hair shiny — is 83 percent higher than a regular old Hershey bar.

What's that got to do with Greek yogurt? Matthesen's glad you asked! "Asians are eating more yogurt," he says. "You should try to combine candy with yogurt."

Unfortunately, not a single candy manufacturer — the "vendors," in Expo parlance — is in the room to receive this pearl of wisdom. They're all out on the convention floor putting the finishing touches on their booths before the big ribbon cutting at 10 a.m. Doesn't matter, though; they know all about Whole Paycheck and its fabulous markups on healthy, wholesome food. That's where a large percentage of them are aiming their sales efforts — never mind that the very source of candy's appeal is that it's not supposed to be healthy.

Out in the hallway, a crowd begins to gather. Whoever invited the keynoters neglected to inform the ribbon-cutting logisticians that they'd be staging a rousing welcome for a crowd that looks like it just walked out of a funeral. Emerging from the ballroom is like being jolted into consciousness after a brutal Friday-night bender and staggering smack into the blinding (and commercially inspired!) world of a Saturday-morning cartoon.

Sunlight streams in through the skylights, illuminating a chorus line of dancing Peeps, Lemonheads, Oreos, M&M's, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, GooGoo Clusters and Hershey's Kisses. Not to mention Mr. Jelly Belly himself, along with several dozen badge-wearing conventioneers, including a few in business suits, twirling and stomping and fist-pumping in unison (more or less).

The message is clear: Even in the pit of a bitter recession, candy continues to represent happiness in a little foil package! Not only that; happiness also comes in sealed bags of salty potato chips, pistachios and beef jerky! With 551 exhibitors occupying the three-acre convention floor just on the other side of the plastic ribbon — which will, in just a moment, be sliced asunder by the presidents of the National Confectioners Association and Chicago-based Jelly Belly (and Mr. Jelly Belly, the red and puffy mascot of honor) — there should be more than enough happiness to go around.

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