The annual International Home + Housewares Show (IHHS) in Chicago, sponsored by the International Housewares Association, is the highlight of my year. However, IHHS is packed with a myriad of fascinating products and stories making it somewhat challenging to absorb and assimilate everything. After a brief period of decompression, I was able to look back over the five wonderfully hectic days in the Windy City and jot down observations that will serve as a preamble to many articles to come.
Smart Home Integration
Let’s start with a topic that was a focus of this year’s show: smart home integration. Certainly integrated appliance technology is nothing new, but for the first time, it seems the housewares related functionality is moving in a practical direction.
Having said that, I still advise consumers to take a close look at the claims made by any company before buying a new product simply because it is called “connected,” “smart” or “i-something.” If a company defines smart connection as shifting or replicating basic on-board appliance operations to an app, then color me unimpressed.
However, if the app can provide unique feature rich controls and user experiences not possible on a typical appliance screen, then OK, there is benefit. Keep in mind that companies like Jura, DeLonghi and others have for years effectively improved feature customization with small on-board visual touch screens. The implication being that app integration doesn’t necessary mean improved feature function.
An early leader in the area of practical smart functionality seems to be Amazon’s Alexa. Several appliances were boasting voice control capabilities with Alexa, such as, “Alexa, turn on the toaster oven; set the temperature to roast function-whole chicken.”
A few companies were advertising other Amazon connectivity features relating to replacement parts. For example, if you purchased the coffee online, the user could be alerted of the need to buy more coffee based on how much was actually brewed in a given week. Amazon already has a few usage based auto renewal partnerships, i.e. carbon filter replacements for water pitchers.
Another of the more successful uses of integration involves a trash can attachment, GeniCan, that can read bar codes of discarded foods and assemble a shopping list of items you may now need.
A new Charbroil Propane Grill uses smart app integration to control and adjust ambient cooking temperatures, monitor internal food temps to signal doneness, as well as new functionality to provide better user interaction with recipes and detailed instructions.
For some reason camera integration seemed to be included in the “smart connectivity” selling points, but I remain skeptical of the need to spy on the food via WiFi during the cooking cycle when I am some distance from the kitchen or allegedly enjoying the great outdoors. How the grease and fat released during cooking will affect camera portals over time, knowing consumers hate to clean or maintain appliances, will determine if it remains a “must have” feature.
Again, take care to examine the details of why a product is listed as “smart” before you buy; clearly some integrated products are more feature rich than others. In the next year to eighteen months, we should see an increase of truly innovative smart functionality in kitchen and housewares products.
Product Trend Observations
As one wanders the vast halls of McCormick Place, methodically stalking each aisle, certain products can show up repeatedly; these unexpected patterns generate quick notes for future reference.
Pour Over Coffee
For instance, pour over coffee devices are being marketed by an increasing number of companies large and small, including Melitta, whose founder, Melitta Benz, literally invented what we now call the pour over category. Undoubtedly, you’ve seen the company’s nearly ubiquitous red and black plastic devices while out shopping, but with the onset of coffee’s Third Wave, Melitta fell out of fashion and behind the times.
Recently Melitta reemerged on the market with a new line of stylish ceramic pour over models. As mentioned, the competition is now quite extensive and it will be curious to see if they can reclaim their place as the must have brand for a new generation.
Speaking of pour over, a growing number of kitchen appliance manufacturers are touting “pour over” electric coffee brewers. For the record, all automatic drip coffee machines are an ease-of-use interpretation of pour over coffee.
So how can these new automated machines claim to be pour over? Most have modified the standard drip machine to include any or all of the following features to simulate this prized brewing method: new spray dispersal heads, improved water temperature management and modified coffee saturation times.
These improved machines brew a delicious cup of coffee, but they are still automatic drip brewing machines, the results of which won’t compare favorably to a well made cup of coffee in a manual pour over device.
Air Fryers are another trendy product that have shown up under a growing number of brands. An air fryer utilizes different cooking methods in one appliance in an attempt to simulate deep frying without the mess, odor and leftover oil.
The combination of heating techniques vary by manufacturer, but include some combination of electric radiant heating and circulating convection heat, sometimes adding infrared. The superheated dry air utilizes a small amount of oil to coat the food in a fine mist as the air circulates around the “oven” during cooking.
The food can be tasty and is certainly healthier than traditional deep frying, but make no mistake, it’s not the same. Fried potatoes will have neither the crunch nor flavor of deep fried, in fact they remind me of oven baked fries. If you think you are going to replicate mom or grandma’s cast iron skillet fried chicken in an air fryer, think again.
I noted this year that air fryers are where slow juicers were two or three years ago – the hip choice for the health conscious consumer. The question is whether the air fryer will at some point in the not too distant future suffer the same abandonment rate as juicers do now. Something bought with the best of intentions to eat more healthfully, but not as convenient as one expects once the machine is sitting at home.
New models this year began including smart connectivity and the trendy internal camera, and while styles vary by company, these are not small devices. Most will weigh around 15lbs, and have a size in the 15″x14″x15″ range, which will take up valuable kitchen storage space.
Healthier frying is not the only intended purpose of the air fryer, companies also tout their abilities to “grill,” roast, steam and to some extent even bake, but for now Kitchenboy remains hesitant to take the plunge.
Spiral Food Cutters
Spiral cutters remain popular, with a mind numbing selection of manual and electric models to choose from. The trend this year, and last, was toward hand held spiralizers in an attempt to make them easier to use, while expanding the types of foods that can be cut into strands. If you experimented with a larger spiralizer, you may have noted that narrow foods, like carrots and even smaller zucchini, tend not to stay fixed in the prong holders.
This is why many of the newer hand held models resemble giant pencil sharpeners, but more brands this year shifted designs so the spiral cutter functions like a cheese grater or large hole rasp. Several companies recently included a means of capturing the vegetable strands in a plastic box or jar, again, bringing to mind the familiar horizontal box grater.
I think the average home cook will see spiralizers only as a way of creating attractive, fresh tasting side dishes or pasta toppings. The popularity of this product may wane when consumers recover from the novelty of the device several months after purchase.
Metallic Finishes On Appliances
Repeated touring of the various exhibit halls exposed another unexpected trend – metallic finishes on small kitchen appliances, specifically, copper and brass, both polished and brushed.
Technivorm Moccamaster was one of the first to announce a brushed copper finish on select KB models, while another coffee brand, ESPRO, displayed an 8-cup press with a polished copper finish. A little post-show research revealed that these products are part of an exclusive copper focused campaign from Williams-Sonoma, one that also includes copper products from the likes of Trudeau, Vitamix, KitchenAid, Imperia Pasta machines, and Chantal kettles.
It is not uncommon for top brands like these, who make such consistently high quality products, to attempt to generate show floor buzz with a striking new finish. However, in this case there was larger strategy, even if it wasn’t part of a coordinated announcement.
I expect the exclusivity arrangements with Williams-Sonoma to end sometime later this year allowing consumers to find the products at other retail outlets.
I could go on, but rest assured you haven’t heard the last of the new and improved products for 2017. As Kitchenboy culls through the press materials and notebook entries, future articles will provide more detail on the noteworthy finds from IHHS.