Conference Beat™ – National Restaurant Association 2014 – The International Foodservice Marketplace

Chicago, May 18-20, 2014 — The National Restaurant Association (NRA) Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show has been quietly rebranding their national conference the International Foodservice Marketplace as the foodservice industry and the audience for this show has evolved.  The show has indeed become a marketplace of buyers walking the aisles with their shopping lists, designers, and consultants ready to make decisions.


In recent years many of the outstanding taste experiences have moved out of McCormick Place to locations around the city where chefs have been presenting tasting tables at their restaurants and other event venues.  This year, the Foodamentals Studio brought the food-focused experience back into McCormick Place with standing-room-only sessions throughout the conference.  Among the most popular sessions were the cheese tastings and innovative dessert construction where participants in the studio passed a torch among themselves to finish handmade marshmallows for a s’more sandwich.


Trends and Counter Trends

Complex versus Uncomplicated – chefs and restaurateurs revel in creating intriguing and complex flavors that captivate diners.  When it comes to speed scratch and convenience foods, clean labels and uncomplicated ingredients are in demand.


Avoidance versus Indulgence – wellness is indeed a mega trend and products free from gluten, nuts, and dairy allergens continue to gain attention; yet restaurants are among the last bastions of indulgence for consumers.


Gluten Free versus Artisan Breads – gluten free offerings are found in every segment of foodservice, but there are many offerings from traditional bread companies with brioche buns, artisan breads, naan and even waffles for sandwiches.


Value versus Ultra Premium – low cost items and luxury brands beckon consumers at both ends of the value spectrum.


High Speed Efficiency versus Slow Food – the need for speed and convenience are escalating to feed consumers’ time starved lifestyles, yet slow food, lovingly crafted continues to gain devotees.


High Tech versus High Touch – technology is enabling restaurateurs to run far more efficient operations and eliminate errors, yet the personal connection of sharing a meal together in any segment of foodservice connects people in a very personal way.



Urban Agriculture

McCormick Place is cultivating the largest rooftop garden in the Midwest.  The garden has 17 crops and 51 varieties of produce that supply ingredients for foodservice operations at McCormick Place and nearby restaurants.  There are two large beehives soon to be populated as well.  Gardeners work closely with the chefs at Savor (the contract management firm for all venues at the convention center) to cultivate plants specifically for the seasonal menus.



Equipment Innovations

Menu trends are driving equipment innovation.  Feeding the never ending desire for pizza, high efficiency fast cooking ovens now come in a variety of colors to match dining room décor.  Equipment with customized colors and graphics for individual operations had buyers considering the additional merchandising benefits of custom-branded equipment.


Kitchen efficiency is important to buyers looking for equipment that can give them the flexibility to serve a wide range of food and beverage items from the same equipment.


New tabletop equipment offered operators the versatility to make ultra-premium tea, coffee and cocktail infusions.  A newly released Dream Kitchen Survey by Y-Pulse® ( shows combi-ovens as the most desired piece of dream kitchen equipment.  Manufacturers are continuing to innovate with new features.  Hassle-free performance and simplicity are important in all equipment categories.  New soft-serve ice cream equipment offered guaranteed drip free performance and a user-friendly, iPhone-inspired interface.



Elevating Everyday

On the show floor and around the city some of the top chefs were creating menu items reminiscent of classic comfort foods with an elegant or unexpected twist.  Burgers are a standard part of the American culinary landscape, yet variety abounds with different types of proteins, natural cheeses and unique condiments.


Chef Amanda Rockman from Chicago’s Nico Osteria developed a signature topping for frozen yogurt reminiscent of her favorite childhood cereal, Captain Crunch Berry Cereal, made with freeze dried strawberries, almonds, pink peppercorns and white chocolate.



Flavorful Protein

There is escalating interest in more flavorful protein choices, like chicken thighs, that give chefs more menu opportunities to deliver a wider range of flavorful dishes with inspiration from around the globe.  Sausage is gaining attention as an ingredient in pasta or vegetable centric dishes to add fresh customer appeal and flavor without compromising food cost.


Interest in seafood is expanding as understanding of the available varieties and the ethics of sustainable fishing expands.




Focused Menus – The Next Evolution of the Food Truck

As quick service menus expand, innovative chefs who do one thing incredibly well are drawing followers and lining up customers.  The growth of specialty restaurants with limited offerings may be the next evolution of the food truck.  Food trucks are the perfect incubators for these trendy new concepts aspiring to find a permanent home.



Next Generation Chefs and Tomorrow’s Menus

The National Restaurant Association and the city of Chicago put on quite a tasting tour for foodservice professionals.  When it comes to the trends, everyone has an opinion and surveys abound.  Culinary Visions® Panel surveyed culinary educators around the country about what they are teaching today to get a glimpse of how it may affect tomorrow’s menus.


Following are trends these industry professionals are teaching the chefs of tomorrow:

  • Practicing local and sustainable menu development
  • Understanding classic European cuisine and modern cooking techniques
  • Creating delicious menus that hit health and wellness goals
  • Understanding unconventional venues like food trucks and pop-ups
  • Working with a global pantry of ingredients to prepare a wide range of ethnic offerings



Taste Talk Tweet

Just as expected, NRA attendees were flooding twitter with exciting product pictures and celebrity chef sightings.  Tweets this year buzzed around trends such as hydroponic systems for growing micro greens and edible flowers, space-saving equipment, and technological innovation.  Attendees were impressed with the vertical direction of ovens, frozen yogurt, and buffet displays, and also noticed the implementation of mobile technology in this year’s product lines.  The advancement of the gluten-free product platform through pastries, dinner solutions, and snacks was also well-captured.


If you want to be on the forefront of trends at shows nationwide, follow our observations in real time at  The next conference where we will tweet trends is the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Show June 1-3, 2014.




Slow Food In The Fast Lane – menu items with authentic homemade flavor are in demand in all sectors of the industry.  Fast casual continues to drive the conversation delivering a destination dining experience for consumers on the go.


Customization Captivates – consumers and operators alike are interested in customizable products and experiences that can be uniquely their own.


Mindful Menus – ethically produced and sustainable foods are becoming a menu imperative for chefs mindful of the planet and their customers’ satisfaction.


Retro Chic is On Trend – everything old is new again, from vintage cocktails to grandma’s recipes.


Everyone Wants a Bite of the Business – consumers are in the driver’s seat when it comes to satisfying a crave for a snack or a meal away from home.  Beyond foodservice, supermarkets, convenience stores and drug stores are all looking for their share of the food dollar.


Mediterranean Lifestyle – the culture, cuisines and flavors of Mediterranean countries continue to charm chefs and consumers alike.

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