Sobering Up at the CRFA Show

It’s no secret – well, maybe it is – that those of us in the SOLE (sustainable/seasonal, organic, local, ethical) food scene live in a bit of a bubble. We tend to think of all food as “real” food, made from fresh ingredients, and we tend to frequent restaurants with the same philosophy. But the majority of food service businesses still don’t operate this way. And when I say “food service” I don’t just mean high end restaurants serving artisanal food; food service includes everything from hospitals, hotels, catering companies, school and office cafeterias, sandwich trucks and yes, restaurants, but of all sizes and styles, from little neighbourhood coffee houses to family-style chains and everything in between.

While the philosophy of these establishments may be as different as night and day, they all share some common ground – there are some things they all need to run a successful business: pots and pans, salt and pepper, plates, napkins, dishwashers…

The annual Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association trade show is the place where all of these things come together. Where food service operators can ogle shiny new Hobart mixers, pick out new menu covers, or find a supplier of eco-friendly take-away containers. It’s also where companies of processed foods try to sell their products to restaurateurs. Some of these products are a given; from ingredients like spices to things like coffee, tea and condiments. There’s also the category of products that many restaurants could potentially make in-house but often choose to bring in. Bread is a massive category at the CRFA show, and bakeries are here with huge displays and samples to entice restaurant owners to serve their products.

After bread, cakes and pastries are probably the most prominent category of items brought in to restaurants. In both catering operations and many restaurants, believe it or not, desserts are often not made in house, and many bakeries here offer gorgeous displays of treats at wholesale prices.

There is some representation of fresh fruit and vegetables – companies like 100km Foods Inc. were on hand, and local food artisans such as Alba Lisa and Chef Jono were part of the Toronto Food Business Incubator section. But big food is also prevalent here. At the McCain booth, we sampled something called an “early riser”; a McNugget-looking thing made from potato, egg, cheese, pepper and bacon and coated in a corn-flake based crust. It was horrifying. Likewise the pre-made omelettes we came across. And let’s not forget the plethora of frozen fries, chicken wings and other pub grub that diners generally expect is made fresh… but maybe isn’t.

The event isn’t just about the trade show floor, however – there are cooking demos featuring well-known chefs such as Lynn Crawford, Susur Lee and Donna Dooher, and throughout the three days of the show, seminars are offered on everything from wine glass comparisons to how to use social media.

But while the CRFA show is always a fun and informative time, it’s also kind of sobering – there is an awful lot of crap food out there. And despite the efforts many of us make to support local farmers, to eat seasonal and organic products, or to just support local restaurants or local food artisans, someone, somewhere, is eating all that processed stuff.