OPINIONFood

Picking the food stars among miles of booths at the National Restaurant Show

From schnitzel to soft serve, Nancy Kruse and Lisa Jennings put in the mileage and tasted it all at the biggest restaurant event of the year.
The 50/Cut slider, Avocados From Mexico's guac bar and Prime Roots plant-based salami. | Photos by Lisa Jennings.

Nancy: What could I say, Lisa, when a guy in lederhosen with a sprig of edelweiss in his Alpine cap asked me if I’d like a bite of his schnitzel? Opportunities like this just don’t come along every day, but they are par for the course at the National Restaurant Show, the annual food frenzy at which 58,000 people affiliated with foodservice industry eat themselves into a coma during its four-day run in Chicago. 

The schnitzel on offer was from first-time exhibitor Holy Schnitzel and boasts the tagline “In Grandmother We Trust.” Grandma in this case really knows her way around the küche when it comes to slinging schnitzel, as the product was pretty tasty.

So, this transpired early on the morning of Day One, when before me lay miles of aisles. Having traversed many of those miles, I’m anxious to compare notes on what impressed you this year. 

One glaringly obvious takeaway from my perspective is that, despite continuing reports of consumers falling out of love with plant-based protein, manufacturers haven’t gotten the memo; they continue to multiply like rabbits. And by this, I mean real rabbits, not pea- or soy-based bunnies. 

In fact, there was an announcement on the last day of the show, that Carl’s Jr. and Del Taco are axing Beyond Meat’s faux beef. But despite these growing headwinds, the show guide listed 45 alternative protein suppliers this year versus nine just five short years ago. I tried a number of samples, which ranged from really awful to not so awful. But none that I ate truly replicated the savory unctuousness of the real deal. 

If these brands were out in force, so, too, were the purveyors of boba tea. This category was really popping, pun intended, thanks to companies like Possmei, a Taiwanese-based specialist that promises buyers a one-stop-shop opportunity. The company sets up would-be tea titans with everything from equipment and raw material to packaging and sexy point-of-purchase displays. I found their Brown Sugar Latte positively restorative. 

In fact, a number of exhibitors promised to set me up in style. I especially liked Ramyun Cafe from The Touch On, a company in the Korean-ramen business that provides machines, bowls, ingredients and all necessary accoutrements. While installations are typically on site in businesses and c-stores, I was smitten with the zippy red-and-yellow ramyun wagon that can be wheeled directly to potential noodle slurpers. 

Speaking of zippy, I was also taken with the Donna Italia pizza ovens that are available to purchasers of the company’s imported pizza products. Selling a mere 10 pizzas a day qualifies an operator to install one of the nifty countertop stone ovens. Available in shiny black, white or bright red, the cute little machines look like tiny Fiats minus the wheels, and they pop out truly tasty pizza with minimal hassle. 

I’m still sifting through my notes and soaking my aching feet, Lisa, so I’m going to hand this off to you. What caught your eye and commanded your attention at the Show?

Lisa: Should I feel bad that nobody offered me a bite of their schnitzel? My best offer came in the form of soft serve. Otherwise, it was a fabulous Show and I also ate my way down one aisle and up the next.

Like you, I was curious about the new plant-based offerings and there were a few worth noting. Prime Roots had charcuterie that allows vegans to share in the joy of an overflowing appetizer/snack platter that looks almost like a real-meat version. Among the options were plant-based paté, including one with truffles, that I’d be happy to nestle alongside my real-meat capicola and chorizo.

Oatly also had a new creamier Half & Half for coffee creaming purposes. And those fun folks at Yo Egg—that lovely sunny-side-up plant-based egg with the runny yolk—this year introduced a version designed for breakfast sandwiches. Alone on a plate, it looked a bit, well, plastic. But it would fool any meat eater if tucked in a (vegan) croissant or other sandwich application.

For those not ready to give up meat entirely but looking to cut back, Mush Foods US Inc. was showing off a delicious 50/Cut burger made with half ground beef and half ground mushrooms. I’m a fan of the fungi, so that’s a win for me, and they have a turkey sausage and chicken sliders with a similar mushroom ratio. When I’m queen, we will all be eating more mycelium.

Other tidbits: Pop Daddy had flavored pretzels that ranged from Yellow Mustard (my favorite) to Thai Curry. There was Avocado Bread in all manner of loaves, which had avocado in the bread—not on top, though that’s certainly an option—giving it a nice mouth feel.

But this year my favorite booth was probably the Avocados from Mexico Guac Heaven booth, which featured a guac bar where you could build your own with various toppings, or choose signature recipes like the Pork Cubano with pickles, mustard and bacon; or the spicy Italian Chili with jalapenos, teardrop peppers and Calabrian chilis. Why isn’t there a guac bar like this on every corner in America?

Other than the worn-down tread on your sneakers, what else did you take away from the Show this year, Nancy?

Nancy: Well, let’s see, Lisa. I happily wore down the tread on my sneakers by trotting around the Taste of the States Pavilion, which is always one of my favorite stops on the Great Show Route. It’s a reliably terrific opportunity to catch up with some veteran exhibitors and to discover some new ones. 

In the former category, I always stop in the Illinois aisle to visit Vanee Foods, a well-respected, family-owned business and stalwart supplier of shelf-stable prepared items. This year, I was charmed by Ben Vanee, a recent high-school graduate, who told me proudly that the company had been founded by his opa, Dutch for grandfather, then corrected himself to say the founder was his great grandfather, or overgrootvader. The Dutch was a little too much for either of us to navigate, but as a fourth-gen Vanee, Ben was confidently dishing out samples to the throngs. 

In the category of newbies, I moseyed over to Minnesota delegation, where I really liked The Amazing Chickpea, which produces a slew of attractively packaged, tasty items all made with the protein-rich legume. I thought the CB&J (chickpea and jelly) Sandwiches were a very smart peanut-free option, and I liked the cute single-serve cups of Banana-Cinnamon or Chocolate Chickpea spreads, too. 

In the Georgia section, I sampled Hot N Saucy Sauces. I mean, with a name like that, how could I not? Chef-founder Samantha Davis-Allonce remakes classic hot sauces using vegetable bases in small batches. The proof is in the tasting, and her care in creating them shows.   

And while I liked her classic Dive Bar Hot Sauce a lot, I was really taken with her Southern-inflected specials like Sweet Potato N Habañero and Collards N Ghost Pepper varieties. What's more, Davis-Allonce has jumped on the swag wagon with cute tees N totes. Sorry, I meant tees and totes. 

One of my big post-NRA takeaways is always a profound respect for all the entrepreneurs, who bring their best ideas and items to the Big Show. It’s a leap of faith and substantial commitment of time and money on their parts, and it’s invariably energizing and exciting on mine. 

And with that said, Lisa, I’m going to slip into my Hot N Saucy tee shirt, put my feet up and nod to a confab that wears its 100+ years very well indeed.

Lisa: You’re so right about the entrepreneurs at the Show, Nancy. It’s easy to think of the Show as a place for big league deal making, with huge vendors from The Coca-Cola Co. and Ecolab, to all the big tech players. But it’s also a place where first-time exhibitors face the masses, which can be alternately terrifying and exhilarating.

I was charmed by first-timer Doreen Gardner, CEO and founder of Papa’s Brittle, a small company based in Kalamazoo, Michigan, that makes homemade brittle featuring various nuts in that rich-and-crunchy stick-in-your-teeth candy that brought me back to my childhood. This was really good brittle.

Gardner said it was her mother’s recipe. Mama Gardner made tons of the stuff to give away as gifts, and her list of recipients was in the hundreds. When her health began slowing her down, she asked daughter Doreen to take over the candy making.

Doreen initially said no. She had retired from a long career with AT&T and was looking forward to working with her church and relaxing a bit. But her father eventually talked her into taking over the holiday gift list.

Seeing how popular the brittle was, Doreen suggested they consider selling it. Her mother didn’t want to sell the candy, but Doreen decided to test the waters anyway. She posted a sale of the brittle on Facebook, just to see if anyone would respond. “I don’t know what got into me,” she said.

Within three days, she sold 200 pounds.

Still, Doreen decided she wouldn’t do it again and moved on with retirement. The woman was in her sixth decade at the time, after all, and had every right to put her feet up a bit.

And yet, the idea of a business just wouldn’t seem to let her go.

Later, she was invited to take a class on entrepreneurship. She found herself developing the brittle concept, which she named Papa’s in honor of her father, who died in 2021, the same year the company was officially launched.

The way Doreen tells the story, she felt the hand of God in the process, despite her reluctance. There was that day when she felt compelled to watch a football game on TV with her husband. She wasn’t really paying attention, but suddenly the voice of an announcer spoke to her as if from a higher power.

“Most games are won in the fourth quarter,” the announcer said.

Now Papa’s Brittle is taking off, appearing on shelves in grocery stores and as a topping for ice cream shops. She expected the Show to open even more doors, based on the great feedback she was getting.

“I’m finding it’s not just about restaurants but making other connections with business overall,” she said. “It gives me confidence that I’ve got a great product.”

 

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