No doubt many of the 67,000-plus attendees at this year’s National Restaurant Association Show were searching for the same answer as they walked the floor and attended educational sessions and culinary demos: What big food and drink trends will drive menus in the year ahead? We were out there looking, too, and made some compelling discoveries. Read on to find out what rose to the top during our trek through the NRA Show—and see if you agree.
1. Clean = healthy
Consumers see clean, “free-from” foods as the foundation of a healthy lifestyle, said trend analyst Nancy Kruse during her educational session “Menus 2017: Turning Trends into Money Makers.” In the past, smaller manufacturers were the ones touting all-natural products with transparent ingredient lists, but this year, more large suppliers jumped on the trend. Two major beverage companies showcased soft drinks made with cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup and offered up several minimally sweetened beverages and fruit-forward drinks. Major meat and poultry producers offered up antibiotic-free products. And packages of condiments and sauces from big brands sported ingredient lists without artificial flavors or colors.
2. Say yes to no waste
Chefs doing demos both at Foodamental Studio and exhibit booths taught attendees how to turn every scrap of vegetables and fruits into zero-waste menu items. To drive home the point that these eco-conscious dishes also help control costs without skimping on presentation or flavor, chef Matt Dugan used a blender to puree roasted carrots into a toast topper, transforming the carrot tops into pesto and the peels into a savory jam. The result: Middle Eastern Carrot Spread with Carrot Top Pesto and Carrot Jam.
3. Plant-based dishes grow—and so do the plates they’re served on
Carrots also starred in an example Kruse gave in her trends talk to reinforce the veg-forward movement on menus. Cold-smoked carrots stand in for smoked salmon in a bagel with “lox” at Orchard Grocer, a vegan deli in New York City. Kruse cited other restaurants that also are treating vegetables to cooking techniques usually reserved for meat and fish: Buffalo cauliflower at California Pizza Kitchen; a roasted broccoli sandwich with fried shallots and feta cheese at No. 7 Sub in New York City; and deep-fried Avocado Bombs with creamy Sriracha sauce at Butterleaf in Irvine, Calif.
On the show floor, tableware companies stepped up with plates and bowls that complement veg-forward dishes. Natural materials like stone, wood and earthy colors play up the plant-based theme.
4. Off the street and onto the table
Global street foods appear in many fast-casual concepts and noncommercial operations, with handheld items like banh mi, samosas and empanadas popular for meals and snacks. Suppliers are starting to dig deeper into the ethnic arena, producing and displaying authentic street snacks such as Indian chaat and Brazilian cheese bread. And full-service restaurants are getting into the game, according to Annika Stensson, director of research communications for the NRA, who told attendees that “street food is getting fancy.” At a session titled “Key Trends Shaping the Future of Foodservice,” she cited elevated tacos, kebabs and bao buns as examples showing up on more upscale menus.
Following close on the heels of street foods is the proliferation of snacks. To cater to more flexible eating styles, operators are introducing snack menus, downsizing entrees and adding more portable foods for customers to grab-and-go any time of the day. The Cheesecake Factory, known for its oversized portions, now has a booming snack section of the menu, said Kruse, featuring items such as Crispy Cuban Rolls. Modern steakhouse STK menus sliders with fillings like pork belly and char su chicken. And supplier exhibitors marketed products that can easily adapt to snack applications. Next up: snack flights, said Kruse.
6. The buzz around beverages
Drinks are a hot category, as evidenced by the new iterations of coffee and tea on the show floor. Nitro-brewed tea and frozen cold-brew coffee were just two examples of line extensions of these staples. But also in abundance were new variations of better-for-you beverages. Probiotics were promoted in traditional kombucha as well as the more nontraditional can of beer. And sparkling turmeric tea capitalized on the antioxidant power of turmeric root; the flavor is rounded out with mango, kaffir lime, ginger and saffron.
7. The fire spreads
Spicy, fiery flavors are still on the upswing, with many hot sauces, relishes and seasoning blends on exhibit. Now heat is quickly spreading to the dairy category. Several cheese producers highlighted products enhanced with ghost peppers, habaneros and chipotle chilies.
This week's head-spinning restaurant moments included a suggestion in court that the "b" in IHOb stood for "bad news for Applebee's." That's just one of the long-shot gambles that came to light as oddsmakers considered the likelihood of restaurants charging into sports betting and who'll win the chain vs. independent bout.