The National Restaurant Show Low Down

(Chicago, May 14) The National Restaurant Association (NRA) Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show, which took place on May 5 and ended on May 8,  once again proved to be the show that 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.


Trends From the Floor

Some of the most talked about items by show-goers included:

  • Fusion of smoked protein with fruit and nut woods such as apple, cherry, and pecan.
  • The growth of macarons, which seemed to surpass chocolate chip cookies for most visibility on the show floor.
  • Ethnic ingredients are becoming mainstream, as evident in Thai basil leaves being listed as an ingredient in one of Coca-Cola’s Honest Tea flavors.  Dual herbal-infused water was also a hot trend, with innovative flavors like Lemongrass Mint Vanilla, Cinnamon Orange-Peel, Ginger Lemon-Peel, and Lavender Mint.
  • A single product that can be reconstituted into multiple formats, Heinz introduced a 3-in-1 soup, sauce, or dip.  The frozen product can be used as a soup by adding water, a sauce by adding milk, or a dip by adding sour cream.
  • Interactive cups and lids that activate herbal/fruit blends into tea within the cup.
  • Pretzels are much more than a salty snack.  Operators are plugging pretzels into their menus in innovative forms such as artisan sandwich buns, crouton-replacements in soups, pretzel pancakes, and even as the breading for calamari.
  • Preparation techniques such as “smoked,” “pickled” and “aged” were prevalent and will likely transcend to more menu descriptions.
  • Terrior is now mainstream with source verification becoming more important on a wide range of convenience products as well as commodity ingredients.
  • Beer infused foods and desserts including Guinness brats and Blue Moon sorbet.

Fully Functional Beverages
Oat drinks, hemp milk, camel milk and all sorts of non-dairy milks are set to appeal to a wide range of consumers with different benefits.  Some are new on the scene and some are revivals of decades old beverages, but all set to capture a unique niche of consumers.


Sweet Caviar

Innovative “Flavour Pearls” showcased a variety of applications and flavor profiles that are deemed to inspire endless creativity for chefs, caterers, pastry chefs, and ice cream makers.  The pearls have a strong resemblance to caviar and are often applied to everything from appetizers, entrées, beverages, and desserts.  They contain fruit or vegetable pulp, spices, and flavors such as red pepper, truffle, balsamic, and strawberry.


Waffle Mania

The idea of “Creative Comfort” is just one of the latest trends making waves at the NRA Show this year, led by waffles.  More than just a breakfast food, operators are reinventing the waffle in all segments.  IHOP’s Chicken and Waffle promotion was a national success in the family-style segment, while waffles were given an inventive spin from California-based Bruxie which features its “bold fold,” a new take on the authentic Belgium waffle.  At Bruxie, the waffle is folded and stuffed sandwich-style and includes classics that range from a Reuben or Angus beef hamburger to prosciutto hash or braised beef short ribs.


The Allure of Umami

Umami played a large role on the show floor as exhibitors used the “taste” to lure customers into their booths.  In addition to attracting the palates of restaurateurs, umami is also appealing to consumer foodies.  In a recent study by the Culinary Visions® Panel, consumers who identify themselves as always or usually liking to try new dishes identified umami as one of their flavors of preference.  The top three flavors among consumer foodies are bitter (62%), umami (61%) and sour (59%), according to the study.  Mainstream consumers still prefer sweet and salty.


Start with the Pantry

A panel of leading QSR chains including Sonic, Domino’s and Popeyes shared opinions on developing new cost effective menu ideas for any scale restaurateur.  Highlights shared included the following advice:

  • Begin menu ideation with your current pantry of ingredients.
  • Be true to what you do best and don’t try to be the other guy.
  • Don’t throw away “the mistake” product or batch…it might just be the next best thing.
  • It is more cost effective for operators to bring current customers back than finding a new customer; operators need to keep their customers happy but don’t let them become complacent with the menu.
  • Deliver what the consumer wants at your operation and validate that with consumer research/feedback before going to market.



Ice cream, vending machines, and customizable flavors equal the new technology known as the MIXI Microcreamery.  This new technology allows a customer to choose his/her flavor and topping and in 45 seconds a sweet and creamy treat emerges from the machine that delivers pure indulgence.  Although the idea is captivating, there were mixed reviews about the product sampled at the show.


Global Consciousness

International restaurants are becoming more and more provocative, forcing customers to consider social issues, including various disabilities, global warming, starvation, and much more.  Concepts such as dining in the dark, a revolving door that powers appliances in the kitchen, and communities coming together to make a meal out of wasted food from neighborhood restaurants are popping up around the world shedding light on global issues.


World Class C-Store Foodservice

Many in the convenience store world are reconsidering the importance of foodservice based on the continuing rise of gas prices.  Many expressed the need to eliminate the misconception of “gas station food.”  The answer to that misconception is delivering food quality that can successfully compete with QSR.  In fact, c-store foodservice operators agree that looking at QSRs for new menu ideas is the first food step, trumped only by a clean bathroom.  As one c-store operator put it, “how can a consumer trust your food safety program if your bathroom isn’t spotless?”


Avant-garde Experiential Dining

Avant-garde dining events are becoming the talk of the international world and the more daring and thought provoking the better.  Examples include:

  • At Dinner in the Sky, a “restaurant” is lifted in the air by a large crane, providing a unique dining experience that can be delivered almost anywhere in the world.
  • Le Calandre in Italy, where diners are given a notebook, pencil, mirror, and earplugs and told to reflect on their meal.
  • The Hot Air Balloon restaurant in Holland, in which consumers dine in a hot air balloon where the chef cooks the meal in the same fire that is fueling the balloon’s flight.


State of the Plate

Elegantly crafted melamine sheds new light on this perennial serve ware.  Contemporary styles, patterns, colors, shapes and sizes presented operators with new solutions for serving customers that are not only cost effective, but efficient.   Styles run the gamut from flare and wave plates to mini serving spoons and cupcake holders.


Sweet Inspiration
In addition to the National Restaurant Show, the Sweet and Snacks Expo ran concurrently at McCormick place.  As usual, “The Candy Show” provided an abundance of flavor trends.

  • Middle Eastern, Asian and Mediterranean-influenced flavors are a trend to watch for in snacks and confectionery.
  • A number of snacks coming to market are based on chickpeas, lentils and seaweed, providing alternative choices to American classics such as potato chips, corn tortilla chips and wheat crackers.
  • A new generation of tropical-fruit flavors is being paired with mango such as pineapple, orange, coconut and strawberry to create new confectionery flavors.


Taste Talk Tweet

Twitter chatter was driven by more than 6,500 engaged social participants and created nearly 20 million impressions during the NRA Show this year.  However unlike in years past where the voice of the attendees dominated the #NRAShow hashtag, exhibitors seemed to overrun the Twitter-sphere in an effort to drive traffic to their booths.  Attendees tweeted about topics such as European carbon footprint statements alongside nutritional panels, shared operating advice, and where to sample the hottest flavors.


If you want to be on the forefront of trends at shows nationwide, follow our observations in real time on Twitter @OlsonComm.  The next conference where we will tweet trends is the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Show June 10-12, 2012.


Implications for the Food Manufacturer:

  • Create a Destination Driver – No matter the segment, operators of all sizes need a definitive difference that makes their restaurant stand out.  As a manufacturer, being a partner is creating a difference that will not only develop a sale but a strong relationship in the process.
  • Track Trends – Many operators are inundated with their day-to-day duties, and appreciate suppliers who help them see tomorrow’s trends that are relevant to their concept.
  • Quality Does Pay – Consumers will pay more for better quality, if it’s relevant to them.  Don’t be afraid to up the ante, even if it will require a slight price increase if you are confident of the value you can deliver.


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