We meet in the executive lounge in the McCormick Place Conference Center, which the NCA has taken over for the week with the Sweets & Snacks Expo 2022 taking up almost four-and-half acres of floor space, which signifies the biggest confectionery show in North America is back to almost full strength after two years of disruption caused by the covid-19 pandemic.
With the Brokers’ Lounge also busy throughout the week, it’s back to business as usual for the candy industry and Downs is in an upbeat mood when we sit down to talk.
No one in my opinion in the modern history of the business has seen growth like this
I ask him about what the NCA has learned since the Expo was last held in Chicago in 2019.
“The biggest lesson for all of us is that we always knew that there was an affinity, a deep affinity, of love and interest in this category by our consumers. Covid has completely validated that. If you look at the remarkable, growth trajectory of chocolate and candy over the last two years - it is absolutely quite a story. No one in my opinion in the modern history of the business has seen growth like this.”
Downs described the phenomenon as the “big-aha” and the “big takeaway” from this year’s Expo.
He said covid has validated the social currency of chocolate and candy for consumers. “The love affair that our consumers have with chocolate and candy, is a social currency, but what is also validated is the importance that chocolate and candy have in our society related to celebrations - gifting family and friends and you know, that's borne out by the excellent performance in the seasons [Christmas, Easter, Halloween] and then you got everyday sales doing very well.”
Downs also emphasises the strong trend at the Expo this year for healthy indulgence and he is pleased to see plenty of exhibitors with plant-based, or free-from alternatives. It’s a sector that will continue to grow, he predicts.
“At the moment it relates to a very small percentage of the business, so not a lot of scale, but there’s an awful lot of opportunity ahead for that given the demographic trends that we see in the United States, as it relates to younger consumers, you know, both Gen-Z and younger Millennials.”
Downs is also proud of the ‘Start-Up Street’ section at this year’s Expo and the support that an organisation like the NCA can give to new companies coming into the industry.
Although huge in terms of sales and scope, the chocolate and candy sector in the US is a family-type business and the owners that we have spoken to all say how supportive and helpful everyone is, an attitude that the NCA also promotes.
Downs said there was a rush of registrations in the week leading up to the Expo and he urges the new companies to join the NCA and receive the benefits to help their business grow.
“It’s critically important to the small candy makers to get them started to give them a solid platform for growth with access to the retail buyers, from all classes of trade to build their business … in a shared sense of community,” he says.
For the Sweets & Snacks Expo, 2023 will be the last year in Chicago. In 2024 it will be held in Indianapolis, with Las Vegas also slated as a venue in future years.
“We got a lot of heritage here, but I think it’s time for a change,” he says.
Last year the Expo was held through circumstances in Indianapolis and was one of the first trade show to be held in the US since the beginning of the pandemic.
For the NCA it was an opportunity to be the ‘only game in town’, as opposed to Chicago where they share the McCormick Center with a restaurant trade show.
“Last year provided us the opportunity to get a taste and a feel for Indianapolis. And we're looking forward to going back there the year after next,” says Downs.
Another development instigated by Downs is the NCA’s collaboration with the World Cocoa Foundation (WCF) to issue joint guiding principles for the cocoa sector to tackle deforestation.
“The issue is obviously a very, very complicated one, but a very big issue and it matters a lot to lots of different stakeholders within the ecosystem.”
Our collaboration with the World Cocoa Foundation is a great example of forming collective action, because we need harmonisation, between the EU and the US on developing a mandatory due diligence framework to achieve something meaningful on deforestation.
“We as an industry have to do more. We have to step up and I'm pleased that when we made that announcement in April that our companies are willing to go ahead and put their stakes in the ground and make the right commitment around all this. This is a very serious effort.”
Despite the pandemic, and global recession and supply chain issues, Downs believes the chocolate and candy industry is robust enough to survive in the long-term and by adding the NCA’s commercial clout to the sustainability debate in cocoa, its influence is set to be keenly felt in all aspects of the industry for another 25 years.