OPINIONFood

Another look back at the National Restaurant Association Show

State of the Plate: Menu Trends columnist Nancy Kruse looks at the up-and-coming ideas and trends that she came across at the annual show: Fancy ice, coffee-top designs, alternative proteins, and "the internet's favorite hot sauce."
Ghost Ice
The Beverage Pavilion featured innovations like Ghost Ice, which promises to "take your ice to the next level." / Photos courtesy of Ghost Ice.

State of the Plate

I’ll never forget my first time. Excited, a little apprehensive and not knowing exactly what to expect, I recall that I wore a silk dress and stilettos. About 30 minutes in, I realized that I was overmatched.

This was back in the day when the entire NRA Show was contained in the building now known as the Lakeside Center, a cavernous space that was perennially packed with people and encapsulated in a seemingly permanent cloud of smoke from the multifarious prep equipment lining the aisles.

Even though McCormick Place now has three massive exhibit halls through which to sprint and I have traded my stilettos for sensible shoes, the annual food extravaganza continues to amaze and amuse, exhaust and energize me.

It also remains an irreplaceable showcase for first-time exhibitors in particular, entrepreneurs who step up and show off their innovations. Although these NRA Show neophytes are often housed in the smallest spaces, they regularly deliver some of the biggest ideas.

Beverage first timers. A dedicated beverage pavilion dubbed The Beverage Room makes it easy to discover creative quaffables, among which this year was Steinbach Mulled Beer. Promoted as a European favorite at ski resorts, Christmas markets and winter events, the fragrant hot beverage combines beer and cherry soda that is delicious and less than 5% alcohol by volume. The company helpfully provides a handy tap system with a flow heater to maintain serving temperature.

At the opposite end of the heat spectrum but just a couple of booths away, Ghost Ice promises to “take your ice game to a whole new level” with a commercial ice-making system that yields hefty, crystal-clear cubes that promise a slower melt time. Essentially ice cube trays on steroids, the system allows for items like, say, flower petals to be added for a more dramatic presentation. Arguably its biggest advantage is that it allows operators of all kinds to participate in the upscale, artisanal cocktail trend that derives much of its mystique from outsized hunks of crystalline ice.

On a related liquid note, Israeli company Ripples promotes itself as a pioneer of bev-top media, which I didn’t know was even a thing.  It allows restaurateurs, bars and coffee shops selling foam-topped beverages of all kinds to create designs and messages right in the foam--at the point of sale and in real time.

The platform boasts “a dynamic content feed and uses big data analytics to measure the impact of bev-top media on bottom-line results.” Whoa, all in the service of foam. For some attendees, this could be a piece of equipment that they didn’t know they needed until they saw it.

Prepared foods first timers. Reports on technology designed to save time and labor reached a fever pitch in Show reportage, of course, but despite all that gee-whiz/what’s-new-in-tech noise, a long-running category that has been a backbone of the Show from the start, namely speed-scratch and fully-prepared products, has lost none of its power. And perhaps not surprisingly, it has acquired a global accent.

Milà, a purveyor of toothsome, attractive Chinese soup dumplings proclaims that “Grandma called. She wants her soup dumplings back.” This is the ultimate tribute to the toothsome dumplings that present beautifully and are easily prepped in minutes.

Stuffed Foods takes inspiration from different parts of the globe with its scratch-quality products like arancini, empanadas, arepas and ravioli. Its competitive advantage is right up there in the brand, and it presents the gamut of labor-intensive enrobed products in an accessible, ready-to-use format.  

As its name indicates, Holy Land Sweets manufactures Middle Eastern baklavas and other sweets. It taps into the Mediterranean trend with recipes that come from, yes, the owner’s mother, who clearly knows her way around the kitchen. The results are indeed heavenly.

Protein first timers.  The alternative-protein category continues to mushroom, as the number of plant-based substitutes on display jumped from 54 last year to 68 this year. Arguably the buzziest contender in the category was Chunk, the well-funded Israeli company that sells plant-based steak fabricated through fermentation technology. The item’s appearance and charred flavor are appealing, especially when bumped up by the garlicky chimichurri sauce. But the texture, while chewy, ultimately lacks the satisfying fat-driven finish.

Real meat eaters could find that satisfaction at the Black Herd Group, an Argentine company that sells exclusively Black Angus beef in popular cuts like ribeye, filet mignon and flat iron steaks. What’s more, the products boast an appealing grain-finished marbelization, and as an added bonus, they are clean and GMO free.  

To accompany the meats, there were some nifty real vegetables on offer as well. In addition to its line of organic, cold-pressed juices, Beetology also purveys whole beets that are vacuum packed and ready to serve. Beet salads had a menu moment awhile back and have since become fixtures on many bills of fare. Now chefs who may have been stymied by the labor intensity of the title ingredient can get in on the action.

Mule sauce

Mule Sauce claims to be the internet's favorite hot sauce. / Photo courtesy of Mule Sauce.

Wide-ranging first timers. The Show can be viewed as a celebration of the entrepreneurial spirit, like that of the enthusiastic bros at the booth selling their Mule Sauce, a sweet-heat, habanero-based condiment that claims to be the internet’s favorite hot sauce. Their gusto won me over, as did the tasty product; and the full range of merchandise like tees, stickers and much more definitely ups the cool quotient.

Then there was Rosaholics, with its own take on farm to table. In this case we’re talking fresh-cut flowers from Ecuadorian farms. The lovely blooms included roses along with sunflowers, hydrangeas and more, and the presentation was a show stopper and suggests an import opportunity for a country that has a relatively low profile in the industry.

And how about The Bizzy Bag? The brainchild of a pair of frustrated moms trying to unglue their progeny from their screens, the clever collection covers the waterfront of kid-approved distractions and attractions. Packed with teacher-approved mini toys for ages three to ten, the cute, reusable bag also contains a small snack to prevent a hangry meltdown and an antibacterial wipe to clean sticky fingers and keep germs at bay. Resolutely analog, the concept was a standout in the tech-crammed aisles.

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