Conference Beat™ – National Restaurant Association – Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show

Chicago, May 18-21, 2013 – The National Restaurant Association (NRA) Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show like every year, provided a lot to be excited about.  The show brings together operators across all segments of the industry.  While talk between attendees focused on a number of the events away from McCormick Place, the NRA Show exhibit hall still delivered the latest products, flavors, equipment and technological advances.


The show featured several themes that are evident of the industry’s issues, challenges, and trends.  These themes could be found throughout the show floor and included healthy eating, beverages, and flavor bursts.



Healthful and Uncomplicated Flavor

Complex, yet uncomplicated was the flavor theme common to many new products. Preparations seen at the show in culinary demonstrations and around trendy Chicago restaurants that were a hit during the show were those that featured simple ingredients, nothing fussy or overdone.


Adding flavor and reducing sodium was a common theme in chef to chef conversations.  Salt blended with a savory herb seasoning was a convenient product that offered foodservice operators a simple, kitchen-friendly way to accomplish this.



Avoidance Dining

The new pavilion for products free from gluten, nuts, and dairy allergens was filled with suppliers to meet these needs.  Products such as chips, bakery, sauces and marinades have vastly improved product formulations from previous years to meet taste expectations of today’s consumers.  One product in particular that was virtually indistinguishable from its gluten and nut-containing cousins was Kiki’s empanadas with savory spinach and cheese filling and a buttery, flaky shell in two portion sizes:  appetizer/kids or center of the plate.


According to research from the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, the additional pavilion was much needed, since gluten-free menu items have increased 275% since 2009.



Menuing Health

Consumers today want the option of choosing health when eating away from home.  While they may not always stick to their healthy regimens when dining out, having that option puts them at ease.  For operators, health can be challenging since “healthy” descriptors can have an adverse effect within consumer mindsets.  When it comes to ordering, most consumers associate healthy offerings with bland, tasteless, and boring.  The Culinary Institute of America crafted a series of tips to help operators menu health in a way that will appeal to all customer types.  They are as follows:


  1. Think strategically about flavor.
  2. Focus on fruits and vegetables first.
  3. Improve fat quality.
  4. Increase options for healthy protein choices.
  5. Emphasize healthy carbohydrates.
  6. Look for opportunities to reduce salt and sodium.
  7. Provide a wider range of calorie & portion options.
  8. Leverage small measures of indulgence.
  9. Share nutrition information.
  10. Engage your colleagues and industry partners in discussion.



Healthy Snacking for Kids

Spurred by the new menu planning regulations for schools, manufacturers have responded with healthy kids’ snacks in portion-controlled packages.  Products are even labeled as “snacks” to help build meal occasions in the consumer’s mind.  Examples include “snack crackers” in kid-pleasing shapes, “yo-kids squeezers” – individual servings of pushable yogurt in sleeves, and squeezable pouches with plastic screw caps that contain fruit juice and coconut milk blends, applesauce or other fruit and vegetable purees.



Micro-Beverage Mania

Specialty beverages in consumer-friendly packaging were displayed throughout the show floor.  Specialty teas, carbonated sodas, infused waters, and natural ginger ales were touted for having superfood qualities and appealing to consumers.


In addition to specialty beverages, an abundance of coffee and tea companies exhibited products and menu applications using improved cold-brewing techniques for iced and blended beverages and quicker blending times using concentrates.



Coffee Crazed

It wasn’t just coffee companies taking advantage of that java flavor.  Espresso, cappuccino, and coffee flavors could be found throughout the show floor in sweet treats such as Greek yogurt and ice cream.



Bursting with Flavor

Flavor concentrates took on new forms for foodservice, including tiny spheres, crystals and powders, with flavors ranging from herbs like basil and mint to floral, such as rose, and vegetal fennel flavor.



Specialty Food Pavilion

A mini Fancy Food Show set up shop in the north hall, displaying innovative specialty foods such as frozen heat & serve grits, polenta, and steel cut oatmeal that retains the nutrients of the long-cook versions.  Grilling enhancers like Smokin’ Dust, which was touted as “flavored wood dust,” when added to the fire source will infuse additional smoky flavors into foods.  More natural smoking methods were on offer, such as hardwood chips, blocks and dust that can infuse foods with different aromatic flavors depending on the type of wood.



Technology Capitalizes

Technology is overtaking the foodservice industry from mobile, to online ordering, to loyalty programs; operators and their consumers can’t seem to get enough.  The days of face-to-face seem to be dwindling whereas touch screen and instant communication are preferred technologies with today’s consumer.  Online ordering, loyalty programs, energy efficiency and big data also emerged as common themes.  The show was also inundated by digital menu boards, tablets, and POS systems of the future.



Taste Talk Tweet

Attendees bombarded Twitter with NRA happenings, including product samples of interest, highlights from sessions, and celebrity chef sightings.  Restaurants turning to mobile apps for marketing got a lot of buzz, as well as show trends such as Greek yogurt, new iced tea flavors, and healthy kids’ food.  Exhibitors also blasted the Twitter-sphere in an effort to drive traffic to their booths.


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 2-4, 2013.




Allergen awareness – consumer desire for products “free from” continues to gain momentum and great tasting alternatives are in demand.  These items will appeal to mainstream consumers as those with diagnosed food allergies.


Easy Options – foodservice operators are interested in products that offer them no-compromise convenience when it comes to offering healthful and delicious choices to their customers.  They want to accommodate all of their customers with desirable choices, yet they don’t want to dilute their focus from their menu specialty.


House-made Made Easy — Operators are looking for clean labels and foods that look house-made, yet are convenient for high volume kitchens.  Suppliers who offer products that can be easily customized on premise in a signature way are in demand.


Technology Takes Personal Out of Service – technology that eliminates errors and improves efficiency is demand in high volume foodservice and venues that target younger consumers.  Menu items will be challenged to “speak for themselves” to appeal to consumers.


Complimentary Exhibitions – the Sweets & Snacks Expo that immediately followed the NRA Show at McCormick Place drew a significant number of the same buyers who were focused on convenience retail within foodservice or simply interested in exploring the snack category in more depth.  A few suppliers exhibited at both shows.

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