Trendspotting at the Restaurant Show

5 takeaway trends with implications for grocers
Lynn Petrak, Progressive Grocer
The Costa Smart Cafe is one solution with potential grocery use shown at the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago.

It’s been an eventful three years since the National Restaurant Association Show was last held at Chicago’s McCormick Place, and it showed in the aisles and conversations among food industry professionals. At almost every turn during the May 21-24 event, visitors encountered products and solutions that addressed the tastes and preferences of consumers as much as the acute needs of operators.

Given the ever-widening omnichannel and recent shifts – some seismic – in consumer habits and in industry technologies, there is substantial spillover from the restaurant business to the retail sector. Whether or not they have robust foodservice-at-retail programs, grocers should take heed of the trends seen at 2022 National Restaurant Association event.

Personalization Through Automation

The consumer demand for customization and businesses’ need for automation at a time of labor shortages converge in systems that allow people to make their own product choices without a significant or even any need for employees. For example, at The Coca-Cola Co.'s booth, show attendees were lining up to pick coffee drinks at the Costa Coffee café. Coca-Cola acquired Costa in 2019 and has developed a self-service express coffee machine called the Costa Smart Café that allows consumers to order hot or cold drinks. The compact next-gen vending machine, which can be added to in-store café areas or coffee bars, complements other options for food-service-at-retail settings, including a countertop in-store solution for hot coffee that can be operated by consumers or by a grocery/café associate. Both digitally-powered systems provide data to help build coffee sales.  

“It’s 3-feet by 3-feet by 74 inches and gives us 250 drink different combinations all founded on fresh beans and using fresh milk. It’s 100 drinks before human intervention – once every 24 hours,” said Tim Warner, general manager of Costa Coffee U.S. “The countertop version gives the same great range and is also modular, so you have great coffee in a small footprint that gives you flexibility between serve and self-serve.”

Coca-Cola highlighted its other automatic equipment with a personal touch, including an updated version of its Freestyle system for those with back-of-the-house operations and an order-ahead solution that allows shoppers to pick a beverage online and pick up when they arrive in store. In addition to Coca-Cola, other vendors spotlighted their automatic drink makers, too, like Botrista, a startup company specializing in cold craft beverages that can be made via presets or custom ordered. Varieties included salted caramel coffee latte, mango iced tea and passion fruit green tea with immunity boost.

The Bots Are Busy

In addition to automatic systems for customized orders, the impact of the labor crunch was evident in other exhibits at the National Restaurant Association event. Judging by the amount of people recording videos of these displays, robots are going beyond a novelty attraction to a problem-solving solution. Tech company Nala Robotics showed its AI- and ML-powered robots – a.k.a. “multi-cuisine chefs” – that can be used in a cloud-based kitchen to prepare a plethora of recipes, from French fries to batters. Pudu Robotics similarly attracted attention with its food delivery robots; that company also markets cleaning robots and robots featuring AI voice interaction that can be used as a greeting or advertising service. A robotic sushi-making system also showed that the future is now when it comes to automated tasks.

Planet Packaging

Retailers offering take-home prepared foods and beverage products have a legion of eco-friendlier packaging options, if the show floor was any indication. Following the takeout surge of the pandemic years and amid the ongoing clamor for sustainable packaging, several companies, such a Minima and Bio Livin', showcased their sustainable containers and cups for grab-and-go use. The collective push to reduce single-use plastics was also exemplified in the number of sustainably made or sourced goods like straws, utensils, bags and cups.

On the product side, Coca-Cola – which aims to use at least 50% recycled material in its packaging by 2030 – shared its new bottle made from 100% recycled material. In June, most of bottles in the Dasani line will transition to this rPET material. The company is also working with foodservice operators and grocers with foodservice operations on reusable cups, including those emblazoned with messages that reinforce climate and waste messages.

Alt Proteins Take Center Stage 

There were plenty of visitors picking up samples of traditional meat products, including beef and pork from Two Rivers and bacon from Nueske, two companies that also have a portfolio of retail products. That said, there was a bigger-than-ever array of plant-based brands on hand at this year’s restaurant show vying for attention and representing a growing slice of the protein market, both at home and away from home. There was the sizzle of plant-based bacon cooked up by Hooray Foods, plant-based poultry lookalikes from Daring Chicken, alternative sausage from Impossible Foods, a new steak format from Beyond Meat, plant-based seafood from Good Catch and Finless Foods, pepperoni-style toppings from Hormel’s Happy Little Plants brand and much more. The popularity of seafood, which accelerated during the pandemic, is another harbinger of the overall expansion of the protein market beyond traditional red and white meats; at the restaurant show, visitors chomped on salmon hot dogs and could learn about sustainable fisheries from all over the U.S. and international waters.

Color and Flavor Intensifies   

Pandemic-era cabin fever might be a driver, and photo-focused social media is definitely a catalyst. Either way, it’s clear that color and flavor are intensifying as we move more into turbulent 2020s. From the vibrant dragontfruit Fanta and cheerful cans of Aquas Frescas from Coca-Cola to macaroons and mochi in a veritable palette of hues, products that stand out on a shelf are also standing out in consumers’ choices. In addition to product and package colors, flavors continue go bolder, reflected in new seasoning varieties from brands like Tony Chachere's and new adult beverages and no/low alcohol beverages from brands like White Claw and Big Drop Brewing Co, among dozens of others. 

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