The four-day NRA Show 2014 ended yesterday and my palate (and belly!) have expanded considerably with all the samples I didn’t hesitate to chow down. Tasting my way around Chicago’s McCormick Place was a formidable task this year, with more than 1,800 exhibitors upstairs and down, plus what seemed like a much larger Wine, Spirits & Beer Pavilion. But I was determined to cover it all, spotting new food and beverage trends and zeroing in on products that stood out a bit from the crowd. My top 10 picks reflect some of the flavors, ingredients and food and beverage trends that will likely impact the menu, attract attention and build business in the months to come.
Coffee is always a good place to start when you arrive early on the show floor. Although I usually opt for a hot cup of joe, there was a lot of iced coffee to be tried. A tall cup of iced mocha hit the spot. It was on the sugary side, but a refreshing way to begin the day with a jolt of caffeine. Iced coffee was prevalent at several exhibitors’ booths and line extensions of this popular beverage are a way to differentiate the menu, especially this summer.
Now it was time for breakfast. There was the usual array of pastries and muffins, but I was looking for something a little more nutritious. (I knew the rest of the day would be a bust as far as health went.) I found it in a grab-and-go hot breakfast bowl made with organic whole grains, including quinoa, pearl barley and steel-cut oats, topped with fruit. Packaged in a microwaveable single-serve bowl, it’s a good option for QSRs and fast casuals.
It’s never too early for ice cream, and gelato seemed to be the “it” frozen treat at the show. I tasted all the traditional gelatos last year (I’m a huge gelato fan), so to try something new, I dove into a soft-serve gelato in a “jamoca” flavor. The cool, creamy swirls were very satisfying. And since gelato contains less fat and fewer calories than ice cream or frozen custard, I felt no guilt moving on to more sampling.
Time to hit the Wine, Spirits and Beer floor. Lots of boozy drinks awaited the attendee here, with locally distilled spirits, cider and ginger beer—both alcoholic and non—in abundance. A lot of booths were shaking up twists on Moscow Mules, made with vodka and non-alcoholic ginger beer. I stopped by a vendor who was pouring ginger beer with a buzz—4.5 percent alcohol. It was served on the rocks for a totally refreshing drink with a zesty gingery edge. Every bar is going to need a ginger beer this year, either as a mixer, a soft drink or a lower-proof libation.
As a certified cheese freak, I couldn’t pass by the large cheese display at the front of North Hall. I wanted to sample something a little different, and found a winning cow-goat milk cheese from a family-owned farmstead cheese company. Creamy, slightly tangy and very fresh tasting, it would work in many menu applications. I can imagine it crumbled over a salad or accompanying a plate of grilled asparagus. Since the cheeses from this company are all named after family members, each has a story behind it—something that can be promoted on the menu. When customers hear or read the story behind their food, they often gravitate toward that menu item.
Right down the aisle I got a sneak preview of an about-to-be-released smoked brisket product from a meat company. The beef goes through a four-step prep process—curing, smoking, baking and sous vide—which made it very tender and juicy with a flavor profile that’s a cross between pastrami and corned beef. The fully-cooked brisket is pre-sliced and vacuum-packed, making it handy to pile on a sandwich to differentiate this growing menu category. With beef prices at a high, a sandwich is a cost-effective way to feature a meat that consumers crave.
That taste got me into a meaty mood, and the aroma of sizzling sausage drew me to a booth that was serving up cracked black pepper bacon sausage. This is not just another product that’s jumping into the bacon craze. The sausage is made with uncured bacon and pork from heritage pigs, then smoked over hardwood. The bacon flavor comes through loud and clear—a magnet for all those customers seeking their next bacon fix—and the sausages themselves were juicy, smoky and adaptable to several dayparts, either on their own or as a recipe ingredient.
Unique graphics caught my eye at a booth displaying cocktail garnishes. It turned out that a prizewinning artist named Godard had designed the labels for both a line of stuffed olives and a line of vodkas, and they were whimsical and attention grabbing. In this case, the bold packaging matched the bold product inside the container. I particularly liked the blue cheese stuffed olives. Place a jar on the bar, and start a conversation. Put them in a martini and perhaps you can upcharge for the cocktail.
Late afternoon, and I was ready for something savory and indulgent—i.e. fried. The floor used to be alive with the sound and smell of jalapeño poppers, but those are very pedestrian these days. Taking their place—and taking them up several notches—were shrimp artichoke poppers. Hot from the fryer, they would make a enticing bar bite to pair with drinks—and encourage patrons to linger. Not too salty or too spicy, these poppers had the right textural and flavor contrast.
To end my day, I needed something to wash down all those samples. Something not too sweet, nonalcoholic and thirst-quenching. Although artisanal sodas have been among the top food and beverage trends for several years, they seemed to take off in even more flavor directions at the show. One of the standouts was a grapefruit, chamomile and cardamom natural soda. It was tart, slightly bubbly and sophisticated. Cardamom has always been an intriguing spice I’ve gravitated toward; perhaps it will give ginger a run for its money.