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What’s Trendy in Prepared Food? Ask Ben E. Keith

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The food distributor Ben E. Keith filled the San Antonio Convention Center Wednesday with an array of the latest in prepared foods, from appetizers and corn dogs, fried sweet potatoes and deep-fried green beans, tamales and French pastries to fried catfish and marinated steaks.

The annual gathering, from one of the largest full-service, institutional distributors in the nation, also showcased new appliances, packaging and equipment for restaurants and other food service businesses.

Schwan’s Foods was offering tastes of their new pizza with a whole grain crust; Bueno Foods passed out tamales, while another booth showed off a new breakfast product: a pancake rolled around a sausage on a stick, dipped in a cornmeal batter and deep fried. Blue Bell offered ice cream and frozen novelties, including a new Neapolitan ice cream sandwich.

Lamb Weston, one of the largest purveyors of potatoes in the world, put out a plateful of french fries to show how they held up under the hot lamps (very well), and their sweet potato fries. “One of the biggest trends today is the sweet potato. We believe in sweet potatoes so much we’re building a sweet potato plant in Louisiana,” said a representative at the booth.

Matthew and Mark Seiler of Maine Root

Matthew Seiler of Maine Root sodas offered samples of his root beer, ginger brew, sarsaparilla and more, all made with organic evaporated cane juice imported from Paraguay. In six years, his lineup has gone from his home state clear across the country. “We’re nationwide now,” he said. (One restaurant that sells Maine Root Ginger Brew is Romeo’s Italian Grill & Bar, 115 N. Loop 1604 E.)

It may seem odd to showcase Pioneer products in the company’s hometown, but not everyone knows the extent of its lineup, said Kelly Crull, who is in charge of foodservice sales for South Texas. “Sure, they know our pancakes, our biscuits and our gravy,” he said. But they might not know the company’s line of sauces, including a cheese sauce that could be turned into a cheese ball.

The event wasn’t all about prepared foods, however.

A stage at the center of the hall was used for demonstrations, talks and a chef competition.

Robb Walsh (left) and Chef Scott Cohen (right) discussing oysters.

One of the speakers was cookbook author and food critic Robb Walsh, who discussed Texas oysters with chef Scott Cohen of Pavil and Watermark Grill. Walsh later autographed copies of his book, “Sex, Death and Oysters,” which tells of his lengthy love of the tasty bivalves. He also had the galley proofs of his latest book, “The Tex-Mex Grill and Backyard Barbacoa Cookbook,” which is due out in May from Broadway Books.

Each of the events on the stage was broadcast on big screen TVs that could be seen throughout the hall as well as on KeithTube, the company’s new method of using video to showcase products and techniques to customers and consumers.

Jim Smith, a market manager for General Mills, took to the stage to discuss how restaurants can better market their products, from being involved in their neighborhoods to making use of social media.

Restaurants need to use new ways to get the word out about their business. “It’s not by word of mouth anymore, it’s with Facebook, e-mail and Twitter,” he said.

Listening from a table near the stage, restaurant owner Charlie Gonzalez, who owns Chentes Mexican restaurant in Alice, said he was gettingĀ  good information from the presentation.

“Nowadays,” he said, “everything is helpful.”

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