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10 notions from the NRA Show that could remake menus

With over 2,000 exhibits and dozens of educational sessions, the National Restaurant Association Show is a breeding ground for emerging trends and ideas. Four days of sampling, listening and observing at this year’s event, which ended on Tuesday, brought these 10 menu-related possibilities—in no particular order—to mind.

1. Jerky from land and sea.

Vendors offered jerky made of bison, boar, turkey and other nontraditional meats. But one of the most unique foods I tasted was trout jerky. It can serve as a savory snack or be diced to garnish deviled eggs, cheese spreads and salads.

2. Seasonal hard ciders.

The craft movement has hit cider, and as with beer, artisanal producers are creating beverages specific to the seasons. At the Beverage Alcohol for Restaurants (BAR) section of the show, I sampled a pineapple cider from a small cidery in California. The dry, well-balanced refresher with about 6 percent alcohol will be released next month. 

3. Clean food.

“Millennials count chemicals, not calories,” one presenter said at a session on targeting chain menus to this demographic. How do restaurants convey that message when they can’t display labels as supermarkets can? The 600-unit Moe’s Southwest Grill sources minimally processed products free of artificial ingredients and promotes its “honestly awesome food” through POP materials and color photos of their grass-fed beef, preservative-free cheeses and fresh vegetables posted in the restaurants, said Pat Peterson, executive chef at Moe’s.

4. Spirits go local.

The BAR exhibitors included a number of micro-distilleries producing boutique spirits in Colorado, Iowa, North Carolina and other states not typically associated with whiskey production. Craft cocktails made with local spirits are a good fit for restaurants touting locally sourced cuisine.

5. Sweet and spicy teas.

A golden yellow tea brewed from turmeric root was a showstopper with its color and description. The unique flavor would pair well with Asian dishes. Also on hand from the same company was a line of chocolate teas, including chocolate Earl Grey and chocolate mint—both zero-calorie chocolate indulgences.

6. Next gen bone broth.

In the session “Menus 2015: Changing Trends into Money Makers,” presenter Nancy Kruse pointed out the rising popularity of bone broth within the last year, with chains such as Panera Bread and Souplantation & Sweet Tomatoes offering up their versions. It’s a reflection of consumers’ desire for real, authentic, comforting food, she said. On the show floor, a few companies displayed vegetable, chicken and beef broth products, but a pho broth and an Asian ginger broth took the trend a step further.

7. Delivering on freshness through design. 

Fresh is the expectation for today’s consumers and while ingredients are a proven way for chains to convey freshness, open kitchens are another effective way, said Kruse. It’s all about transparency. More chains are moving toward open kitchens that put preparation and presentation in full view of guests, and the equipment on the show floor reinforced the trend. Bright orange colored one high-end cooking suite and custom “skins” changed a boring stainless-steel oven into an eye-catching display piece.

open kitchens

8. Coffee as stout.

What to do with coffee after the excitement of latte art, pour overs and other specialty drinks wears off? Upsell it by infusing the brew with nitrogen. The technique adds a foamy head to a cup of Joe, transforming it into a drink that looks more like a cup of stout, as one coffee company demonstrated.

coffee stout

9. Savory jellies and jams.

Pickles and pickling are still going strong, but the next iteration of the preserving trend seems to be savory jams and jellies. Herbed citrus, garlic-tomato and habanero were some of the hot flavors on exhibit.

10.  Celery is the new kale.

A vegetable that most restaurants have in the walk-in may be the next menu star, said Kruse. Celery—and it’s earthy cousin, celeriac or celery root—is showing up on its own or combined with other vegetables on menus in every segment.
 

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