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Trends to Chew on at the Restaurant Show

Digital personalization, AI tools and big flavor are among this year’s takeaways
Lynn Petrak, Progressive Grocer
GRUBBRR's kiosks can be used for deli, bakery and other areas at grocery.

As another National Restaurant Show wraps up in Chicago, it’s clear that consumers and those throughout the food and beverage supply chain continue to have a lot on their respective plates. The 104th annual NRA event was a microcosm of several simultaneous trends affecting consumers’ eating habits and purchasing behaviors, as well as operators’ and suppliers’ approaches to new offerings and services.

During the show, held May 20-23 at a bustling McCormick Place, certain trends stood out and underscored opportunities and challenges faced by those in both the foodservice and grocery industries.

Touch and Go

Mobility and convenience have been married for decades, since the dawn of fast-food chains and TV dinners. This year’s NRA showed that it’s an enduring union with a personalization twist, as the show floor was dotted with many solutions enabling consumers to order items and pick them up in a contactless (or mostly contactless) way. At the Middleby Corp. booth, visitors could try their hand at an automated burger and chicken bar featuring technology for touchscreen ordering and pickup lockers from Carter-Hoffmann. The prominent Coca-Cola booth featured the new Coca-Cola Flex powered by Freestyle, a touchscreen dispenser offering more than 40 beverage choices, among other units and technologies.

Another big draw at this year’s NRA show was an exhibit featuring self-ordering technologies from GRUBBRR and display technologies from Samsung Electronics America Inc., with an appearance by GRUBBRR partner and restaurateur and television host Chef Robert Irvine.

The self-ordering units sell for $2,500 and can be useful in foodservice-at-retail operations, according to GRUBBRR CEO Sam Zietz. “In grocery, we are playing in a couple of areas now in a big way, including the deli counter and bakery,” Zietz noted. “By putting in kiosks, shoppers can enter their order and more importantly, continue their shopping experience and receive a text when their order is ready.” The kiosks can be customized with a store logo, photos or other content, he added.

Irvine, who came on board as an investor and partner in March, said that the units appeal to all shopper bases. “It’s so simple. People want things rapid, and that’s the future,” he told Progressive Grocer, adding that the technology also helps in the key area of labor optimization. “Think about the revenue generation of a store or restaurant, and then put in employee hours to that -- many are barely breaking even. Then what’s the point? What GRUBBRR is doing is allowing me to use the technology to change the back end.”

AI in the House 

Even as debate swirls around the potential and future of artificial intelligence, it was all over the restaurant show. Coca-Cola, for example, brought in a collection unit that it's currently testing, which uses AI and imaging to discern whether an item should go to a landfill or be recycled.

“It is supposed to see someone coming up and, as they approach the bin with an item, it tells them which bin it is supposed to go in. LEDs light up on that side, too,” explained Alex Nicolaou, Coca-Cola’s senior manager for sustainability, customer strategy, during a demonstration of the technology. “It’s also programmable by the location. When these go into a grocery store, you can figure out what is recyclable in that area. It’s by the town and in some cases, by the part of town.”

Other AI tools and technologies at the show included robots that can reduce labor in kitchens by performing simple tasks, and voice AI that takes orders, answers questions and accepts modifications. Even more robots were on the show floor this year than in 2022.

Alternative universe

As with other trade shows over the past few years, foods that double for animal proteins and other traditional foodstuffs were front and center. Many of them are also available in the grocery channel. The evolution of plant-based foods, beyond things like veggie crisps and alt-meat patties, was evident in buzzed-about demos of plant-based steak (complete with real-deal texture and “bleeding”) from Chunk Foods, and plant-based egg dishes from Yo! Egg including sunny-side-up and benedict versions. In addition to analogs, new food sources were spotlighted, such as tins of edible krill from Krill Arctic Foods. Also getting into the alternative spirit: Wheyward Spirit “wheyskey,” a distilled beverage made from whey.

Palate-Popping flavor

Flavor is always at the heart of food and drinks served up in retail foodservice programs and on restaurant menus. As consumers have widened their tastes in the wake of the pandemic, they have more choices when it comes to intense flavors and interesting flavor combinations. Examples include Straight Fire and Slow Burn flavored refrigerated pickle chips from Patriot Pickle's Crisp line; a range of customized blended sauces available from the new Heinz Remix dispenser, like smoky chipotle, buffalo and mango enhancers; and indulgent dessert varieties such as Argentine Sea Salt Caramel gelato from Villa Dolce Gelato Italiano

Other observations from the show floor:

  • Although some hot-soup programs went on hiatus during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, ready-to-eat soup is back as a hot commodity. The line for Bistro Soups samples at the Vienna Beef booth was especially long at the event, while visitors also bellied up to the Clam Shack hot-soup bar at the Blount Fine Foods booth.
  • There’s strong buzz in the adult-beverage category, with highly flavored and often botanical mixers popular this year. The nonalcoholic and sober-curious subcategories also remain ones to watch, with ready-to-drink mocktails, zero-proof and low-ABV products on display.

Following are some images from this year's National Restaurant Show.

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