Food, folks and fun at the Tacoma Dome

The Tacoma Dome this week is a food lover’s paradise and a dieter’s nightmare.

Credit or blame – depending on your point of view – the Washington Restaurant Association, which celebrates its 75th anniversary with the annual Northwest Foodservice Show in Tacoma this year. This year’s show started on Sunday and continues through tonight.

The event, closed to the public and held in Tacoma and Portland during alternating years, is expected to draw over 12,000 exhibitors and guests, who visit displays, attend industry-related seminars and watch cooking demonstrations.

Attendees also get a chance to do some networking, learn about the latest trends in the restaurant industry, as well as check out and perhaps purchase equipment and supplies.

Eating, of course, is one of the more popular activities, with people wandering around nibbling on food and drink samples that included all sorts of tasty treats, from meats and cheeses to seafood to dessert items to adult beverages.

“We’re a hot item. People like us a lot,” said Shirley Easton, regional sales manager with Sephra Chocolate Fountains out of Vancouver, Wash.

And she was right, as a steady stream of people stopped by for a chance to dip the provided marshmallows, pretzels and fruit into the flowing molten Belgian chocolate.

“We’ve had a great show and a lot of fun,” Easton said.

Passersby were having fun, too, as young and old alike couldn’t resist the lure of a chocolate fountain.

“Oooh, you’re so evil,” one woman joked after dipping a piece of fruit into the cascading chocolate and eating it. “Thank you!”

Fellow Sephra Chocolate Fountains salesperson Jennifer Hunt said this was her first trip to Tacoma and that business had been good.

Even fake food was hot at the Northwest Foodservice Show. Francisco Dorigo, president of Fax Foods, manufacturers of food replicas, was on hand with several of his company’s realistic products, which he said are the subject of quite a bit of curiosity.

“People all the time ask, ‘Is that real?’” said Dorigo, who has been in the food replica business for 17 years and is based out of Vista, Calif.

He supplies restaurants, catering companies and the like with display products that always look good and never spoil.

Sometimes they look too good to some people. It’s not uncommon, he said, for people to mistakenly try to eat his look-alike food products, which are made of plastic.

“Oh yeah, you better believe it,” he said, letting out a hearty chuckle.

The more serious business of staying in business was on the mind of Gene Vosberg, president and CEO of the Washington Restaurant Association.

He said a 2003 study by the National Restaurant Association showed that the median profit margin in Washington state is 1.8 percent, while the regional average is 3.5 percent and the national average is 5.5 percent.

The restaurant industry is a high cost, low margin business, Vosberg said, noting a lot of people who attempt to get into the restaurant business are not successful.

Government is a big influence, he said, pointing out that worker’s compensation and unemployment insurance costs are rising.

Getting business-friendly politicians into office is a high priority. “That’s the problem,” he said. “That’s the challenge.”

On a more positive note, Vosberg was excited about the restaurant industry’s trend toward healthier eating.

“We’re not saying don’t supersize your fries,” he said. “Just don’t eat them every day.”

He continued: “Our industry is very responsive. You’ll see more healthy options on menus. I’m really pumped about that.”