Surprising Illinois products

From Fire Department Coffee to Gindo’s Hot Sauce, the 25th annual expo treats many tastes

click to enlarge Surprising Illinois products
Hungry patrons flocked to the Illinois Product Expo to sample the state’s fare March 2 and 3. The line at the Rolling Lawns Farm booth was especially long, but the ice cream was worth the wait. 

March 2 and 3 saw a snaking line of eager locals winding into the Orr Building at the Illinois State Fairgrounds. Each with five dollars in hand, customers came hungry to taste some of Illinois' finest handmade products at the Annual Illinois Product Expo, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year offering a venue for more than 50 Illinois producers to showcase their goods. Armed with a free tote bag and my journal, I paid my entry and set forth into the shoulder-to-shoulder action to find some of the most interesting vendors and get their stories.

My first stop was Fire Department Coffee. Dressed in his daily uniform, Randy James, the brand director, agreed to speak with me about the Rockford-based small batch roasting company which donates portions of all profits to first responders who are injured or ill. "The consumer wants to know that their money is investing in companies that support good things," Randy explains. "People like these stories." As we are speaking, Connie Locher-Bussard walks up and says that her daughter is a retiring firefighter in Washington. Locher-Bussard came to get some FDC beans to send to her daughter. As FDC expands to Meijer, Jewel and soon Walmart, the brand is gaining a big following.

I turn a corner and stop at Phoenix Bean Tofu. In business for more than 40 years, Phoenix works with Illinois farmers to supply a "full life cycle" solution for their soybeans. Company owner Jenny Yang explains: "When we buy the beans, we process them using traditional methods and then give the leftovers back to Illinois livestock farmers as feed. After that, we take the animal refuse and supply it back to the soy farmers for fertilizer." I taste some of their delicious soy noodles and ask Jenny how she got into the business. "Well," she laughs, "I was a customer and I liked it so much I saved up and bought the company!" After trying several different and tasty textures of tofu, I move on.

I pull up to Itty Bitty Micro Farm. Owner Mike Hicks, a specialist in cultivating microgreens, tells me he was diagnosed with terminal thyroid cancer and decided to triple his consumption of microgreens for one year. He is now cancer-free. I celebrate with him and take a pinch of tasty broccoli greens. I can taste the freshness. He tells me the juvenile plants hold more than 40 times the nutrients of full-grown florets.

click to enlarge Surprising Illinois products
Utilizing every step of the soybean production process, Jenny Yang and her family at Phoenix Bean Tofu use traditional Eastern methods to produce high-quality tofu products and give back to local farmers.

Now it's time for something sweet. I meet founder Mark Croy of Re-Mark-able Caramels. He hands me a pretzel dipped in warm caramel sauce that his friends and family are serving out of crock pots to hordes of fans. And customers are ready to buy, some stating they come every year just for his stand. He tells me with a smile that the idea started back in high school, "many decades ago." After dinner, he wanted a sweet treat but his mom told him to make it himself. He describes the first batch of caramel from that night as "an utter disaster" but has since "refined the recipe into something that's neither overpoweringly sweet nor too salty." I agree.

My last two stops are at Earth Candy and Gindo's Hot Sauce. I lump them together, as fantastic additions to my next charcuterie board. Earth Candy's owner, Dave Huniak, lets me try his "fine acidified foods," which are "like pickles but cooler." From his perfectly balanced blends of sweet and spicy vegetables (my favorite product was called Picalilly) to his candied and pickled spiced orange slices, I am hooked.

click to enlarge Surprising Illinois products
What started as a small-batch roasting hobby has become a full-time business for Fire Department Coffee, which gives a portion of its profits to support first responders across the country. 

Saving the palate-buster for last, I stop by Gindo's Hot Sauce and dabble in the fiery arts with my guide, Jaclyn. Gindo's specializes in fresh-made hot sauces without pickled vinegar bases. Where Earth Candy shines, Gindo's goes the opposite path and excels as well. Their hot sauces "actually taste like the peppers, not just spicy vinegar," Jaclyn adds, while dishing out small sample spoons to teary-eyed customers. I couldn't agree more.

I leave the Orr Building with a full bag and a true appreciation of what Illinois has to offer. I enjoyed the tastes, but the real takeaway was how passionate these vendors are and how many fine local products we have the privilege of supporting in our home state.

After three years working as a professional guide and ornithologist in Alaska and Antarctica, Chris Crown returned to his hometown, Springfield, to reposition before a new adventure in graduate school. Having worked as a divemaster, DJ, baker, personal trainer, motorcycle mechanic and many other pursuits over the last 10 years, it's only fitting that he sample as many Illinois Product Expo free tastes as possible.

Chris Crown

After three years working as a professional guide and ornithologist in Alaska and Antarctica, Chris Crown has returned to his hometown, Springfield, to reposition before a new adventure in graduate school. Over the last 10 years, he has worked as a divemaster, DJ, baker, personal trainer, motorcycle mechanic and...

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