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How 'gourmet' foods were marketed in the '80s

When Desmond Smith visited a gourmet food fair for the CBC-TV business program Venture, he learned that taste is very subjective.

Kumquats in syrup, Dutch peas, pricey coffee promoted at food fair

Gourmet foods of 1987

34 years ago
2:29
The CBC program Venture find exotic and pricey edibles at a gourmet food fair in Toronto. 2:29

Pineapple chunks soaked in crème de menthe, anyone? Retail price $17.90 — "if you're lucky," noted the CBC's Desmond Smith.

No? Perhaps kumquats in syrup — "lovely pure little orange fruits," according to the "Brit" promoting them — were more appealing.

Chocolate-coated biscuit stick from Japan? Actually, that sounds a lot like the treat we know in 2021 as Pocky.

But in 1987, few had apparently heard of Pocky, nor the many other delights being pushed at a specialty food trade show in Toronto.

'Hype and free samples'  

A caviar promoter prepares a sample at a 1987 gourmet food fair. (Venture/CBC Archives)

"It was the third and largest annual specialty food trade show, with all the hype and free samples a visitor could take," said Smith, who was reporting for CBC's business program Venture on Oct. 11, 1987.

Smith noted a few trends in the marketing of gourmet food, including "rustic romance, homey names ... and country maids behind the counters."

"What's going on here? Food at its highest price and we're all buying it?" he asked.

Why? Because, he concluded, "it's not boring old groceries."

'Packaging ... and more packaging'

At $50 a pound, this must have been made for a remarkably good cup of coffee. (Venture/CBC Archives)

Other foodstuffs the camera picked up included a giant cheese, peas and carrots in a glass jar from the Netherlands, Italian panettones, caviar and chanterelle mushrooms.  

Smith concluded the key to selling many gourmet foods was "packaging, packaging, and more packaging."

And selling they were. Smith said the number of exhibitors at the show had doubled in three years, and the industry was "booming" — even though 97 per cent of Canadian consumers earned less than $50,000 a year. 

A retailer in the gourmet food business said she could charge double the wholesale price. (Venture/CBC Archives)

After tasting a cup of coffee that cost $50 a pound, Smith said he'd learned how exhibitors pitched their pricey products.

"We're not just buying food. We're buying an experience," he said.

"You may not have enough money to go out and change your whole life," said a woman flogging a line of what appeared to be vinegars. "But you can take $10 and buy some chocolate and feel good that day."

Venture's Desmond Smith grimaces after tasting a concoction of pineapple flavoured with crème de menthe. (Venture/CBC Archives)

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