Last year’s Fancy Food Show was held in New York, but renovation work there has brought the event to Washington for a two-year run. (NASFT)

Three years ago, Gianluigi Dellaccio figured he had a good thing going when he started supplying gelato to a Pennsylvania Turnpike service plaza, where sweets-starved travelers were buying it in numbers far greater than from the previous tenant, a Hershey’s stand. Management was so pleased, it signed Dellacio’s Dolci Gelati to a second location on the pike.

But the King of Prussia rest area, not far from Philadelphia, didn’t prove as successful for Dellaccio as the first plaza, farther west on the toll road. The sluggish sales, in fact, left Dellaccio with an underutilized asset at his Northeast D.C. factory: a second gelato machine, which Dolci Gelati now cranks up only when the King of Prussia plaza places a large order.

To put his machine back to work, Dellaccio last year visited the Fancy Food Show in New York City, an annual expo where thousands of food manufacturers pushing nearly 180,000 items can meet tens of thousands of retailers, from small shops such as Cork Market in Logan Circle to major warehouses such as Costco. Dellaccio’s mission was to gather information from fellow food producers about the show, which is closed to the public.

“I asked them how beneficial it was to them, and everybody gave me a terrific review,” Dellaccio says.

So this year, as the Fancy Food Show pulls into the Walter E. Washington Convention Center for three days beginning Sunday, Dellaccio has decided to plunk down the money to exhibit his line of gelati at the event.

It’s not cheap. First off, Dellaccio had to join the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, the Manhattan-based nonprofit organization that produces two of these massive exhibitions a year, one in San Francisco and one on the East Coast, typically in New York. (The show will pitch a tent in Washington this year and next as its usual home, the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York, undergoes renovations.) The association’s dues run $200 to $600 a year, depending on a company’s annual sales.

Then the gelato vendor had to buy a booth at the show. A 10-by-10-foot space will cost him $3,400, which doesn’t include the $500 fee Dellaccio must shell out to be placed on the exhibitors’ map, nor the $750 he will have to pay for the electricity to power his gelato case. All told, this Fancy Food Show opportunity will run him more than $5,000, not counting the $1,000 worth of gelato he will pass out during the three days at the convention center.

A larger company could better absorb those marketing costs, but Dolci Gelati is still a relative newbie in the specialty food trade. It launched in 2006, not long after the Turin native and trained pastry chef stopped working at Roberto Donna’s previous incarnation of Galileo on 21st Street NW. The company, at the peak of its summer production, employs only 10 people who nonetheless churn out enough of Dellaccio’s gelato to supply not only the turnpike plazas but also 15 area Whole Foods locations, Nationals Park, the National Zoo, and markets and restaurants such as Vace, Dean & Deluca and Taylor Gourmet.

But Dellaccio is ready to extend his reach. He has not only a semi-idle gelato machine, but also a second truck, a refrigerated Ford Econoline that he bought used for $20,000 to help distribute his Italian ice creams. The purchase won’t exactly transform Dolci Gelati into Ben & Jerry’s, but it will allow Dellaccio to strategically expand. He is specifically looking for a handful of accounts clumped in one area, which will justify the fuel and labor costs. He’s also looking for a potential distribution partner to take his gelati even farther outside the Washington market.

He suspects he’ll find everything he needs at the Fancy Food Show — not that he needs much. Just a few new clients could warrant his costs and time. “It will be an opportunity for me to pay back everything in a short period of time,” Dellaccio says. “I hope it’s going to be worth it.”

Dolci Gelati is one of about 83 companies from Maryland, Virginia and the District exhibiting at the Fancy Food Show this year. Another is CookieZen in Falls Church, which sells a line of sweet and savory cookies, called Cookies & Corks, designed to pair with wine. Owners Leah Kuo and Laura Englander attended their first Fancy Food exhibit in January 2010 as “candidate members,” they say. They quickly learned they needed more than a tasty cookie to survive in the tough specialty-food market.

At the show, Kuo and Englander met a designer who would create a brand and custom packaging for them. They met a scientist who would make their highly perishable treats shelf-stable for six months, an absolute must for many retailers, and they met a formally trained chef who helped create specific cookie-and-wine pairings.

“The people we met at that initial show have been influential on where we’re at now,” Englander says. “It’s such a great venue, because you never know who’s going to come up to your booth.”

With their new partner-baker in the Midwest now available to take orders, the CookieZen founders are ready to grow even more. They hope their product will take root in Virginia wine country, with all of its tasting rooms, but more than that, “We want to use this [show] for . . . an East Coast launch,” Kuo says.

Sarah Cohen, president and founder of Route 11 Potato Chips, based in Mount Jackson, Va., has had a far more complicated relationship with the Fancy Food Show — at least for a few years when her factory was already operating at full capacity. From about 2004 to 2008, Cohen attended the exhibit with absolutely no intention of selling more chips.

“It was hard because [buyers] were going, ‘What are you even doing here?’ Because I was saying no to everybody,” recalls Cohen, noting that it’s important to attend the show to maintain relationships and reinforce the notion that you’re still in business. “It was pretty frustrating on both sides for a few years.”

Things have changed since then. In 2008, Route 11 relocated to a new plant in Mount Jackson that doubled the company’s production capacity. Now, Route 11 sells chips at approximately 3,000 locations across the country, whether bags of the classic Lightly Salted, the scorching Mama Zuma’s Revenge habanero or the Dill Pickle chips. (Those last chips, incidentally, are nominated for a Sofi Award this year in the snack food category, one of 33 specialty food categories for which a select group of judges will pick a winner.)

This year, Cohen will drive into Washington with new clients on her mind. The Fancy Food Show is her main tool to drum up business, given that Route 11 has no sales staff, and yet Cohen doesn’t cuddle up to every retail hunk who flexes his muscles. She wants low-maintenance clients. Her company is still too small, too hands-on to deal with prima donnas wanting their every wish fulfilled.

“This is sort of like a vast fishing expedition. There are all kinds of fish coming down the aisle . . . . Everybody is casting their lines,” Cohen says. “There’s a lot going on. There’s the energy of buying and selling.”

That energy has been good to Route 11 during the 20 years that Cohen has attended the Fancy Food Show. Or at least those years when she had a product to sell. Sometimes she picks up clients well after the exhibition has passed, and sometimes those clients are not even retailers she has spoken to at the show. When the iconic Murray’s Cheese shop in Manhattan started selling Route 11 chips in 2009 — Cohen can’t even remember whether she talked to the shop directly or not at the show — Route 11 suddenly got more requests from other cheese retailers looking to follow Murray’s lead.

“It’s hard to gauge exactly [how many clients] we’ve picked up from the show,” Cohen says. “I could safely say that about half of our business is generated from that show.”