What even the robots might have missed at this year’s National Restaurant Association Show

Sweet & Sour: From android armies to a different sort of pot pie, here are the surprises we long time show-goers discovered at the industry’s first annual convention in three years.
Photograph by Oscar & Associates

Sweet and Sour

Nancy’s take:

As I’ve slowly recovered from my NRA Show-induced daze, Peter, I’ve become increasingly anxious about comparing notes on the 2022 edition of my favorite food extravaganza. After all, the intrepid editors here at Restaurant Business have done a superlative job of covering the waterfront from food and packaging to tabletop and technology, including your own timely take on scoring sustenance at the industry’s largest smorgasbord.

As I pondered what I might contribute to RB’s already comprehensive post-Show postmortem, it occurred to me that some of the items and insights that made the biggest impression weren’t always the most obvious or anticipated.

With that in mind, I dug deep into my show-going experience, and the result is my first-ever, unofficial, informal and totally subjective Best-in-Show awards.

While you do the drumrolls, I’ll open the envelopes:

Best Slogan: Milkadamia’s “Moo is moot” wins by a landslide. Based on the action in the aisles, it appears that oink, peep, bah, meh and whatever glub-glub sound a fish makes are heading for a similar fate. I practically needed a machete to hack my way through all the plant-based wannabes: fish and fowl, bacon and eggs, fats and oils, drinks and desserts, meats and milks. There were 54 companies officially listed as Alternative Proteins and 27 as Dairy Substitutes on the show app. But I counted way more that weren’t in these listings, like Grown As* Foods, which makes vegan cheese powder, and Milkadamia itself, with its line of vegan macadamia milk, creamers and butter.

For what it’s worth, I counted only four companies specializing in what was quaintly called Meat Analogs and an equal number of Dairy Substitutes in the 2000 show directory, a count that jumped to nine and 12, respectively, at the pre-pandemic 2019 show. The dramatic leap in both categories certainly suggests a bubble. While the plant-based-products niche isn’t going away, many exhibitors who were sampling their versions this year are destined to wither on the vine.

Best Real-Deal Substitutes: While most of the plethora of pretenders touted their clean-label and environmental bona fides, the truth is that very few had the taste or texture of the thing they were replacing. There were, however, a couple of notable exceptions.

The first is Zùsto, a sugar substitute made in Belgium with plant-based fibers, which has the sweetness and mouthfeel of the real thing and can stand in for sugar in the gamut of applications. The other is Yondu, a fermented, umami-rich plant-based sauce for use in stock, broth, bouillon and more; it had a lovely, clean flavor with no aftertaste.

Each has won a Food and Beverage Award (FABI), which the NRA bestows on products that are unique, tasty and have real sales potential, and these two totally fit the bill. So, despite the fact that they’ve already been recognized, I believe they also merit a B-I-S nod for standing out in a very crowded field.

Best Balls: Wow, this was one hotly contested category, Peter, but the clear winner here is BuzzBallz, a women-owned maker of ready-to-drink cocktails. Besides unfettered use of the letter Z, the company boasts a comprehensive line of trendy, spirit-based quaffs like Espresso Martini and Tequila ‘Rita, all packaged in cute little orbs. If you’re really parched, you can grab wine-based BuzzTallz, bigger gulps in flavors like Stiff Lemonade and Chocolate Tease.

Of greater interest to me, however, is the Chillers line, not simply because it’s missing a Z, but especially because it’s made with a base of orange wine. While slow to get off the ground here, these skin-fermented white wines have been enjoying a revival in Europe, and I thought it was cool to see them in this context. 

Best Everything-Old-Is-New-Again Product: Big Mozz grabs the gold here. Based in Brooklyn, the company makes clean-label, high quality mozzarella sticks that stand head and shoulders above most of the long-running fern-bar favorites. Ingredients include whole-milk mozzarella, Pecorino Romano cheese and toasted bread crumbs, and they really do deliver big flavor.

And talk about good timing: In the past six months, The New York Times has run two features pointing to mozzarella sticks as having a moment on menus, or, as the first writer put it, enjoying “a cultural resurgence.” I don’t know if cheese sticks are a reliable cultural indicator, but they definitely rate as comforting, familiar bites with broad demographic appeal that consumers don’t make at home.

Best Quotable Quote: “The supply chain is making our R&D decisions for us.” So said Steve Madonna, SVP culinary—food and beverage at Bar Louie; and with a long restaurant R&D career, he knows what he’s talking about. He noted the need to constantly pivot to accommodate supply snafus, to which attendees of his panel discussion could only nod a sympathetic “amen.”

Best Insider Tip: Monday morning I had an enthusiastic Uber driver who moonlights as production coordinator of an online cooking-with-cannabis show, and he gave me the inside scoop on one of my favorite childhood pizza emporiums on the northwest side of Chicago. Seems that the second-generation chef-owner fancies himself a cannabis connoisseur, and if you’d like your pie spiked with, um, a little off-menu oomph, you tell the waitperson “I’ll have what Gino’s having.” No, I’m not kidding, and yes, I realize this may force me to rethink my stance on plant-based foods.

Which is a good place to hand this off to you, Peter, as I find myself suddenly jonesing for a pizza. But I’m also keenly interested in your unfiltered, no-holds-barred evaluation of the show. I was genuinely energized by the crowds and the creativity, all of which, I think, augur well for the business going forward. At least that’s my take. Yours?

Peter’s take:

I’ve finally calmed down enough to look at what you’ve written here. That’s no knock against your observations, which are as spot-on as usual. But any mention of the show evokes nightmarish images of robots chasing me through the aisles of McCormick Place with all sorts of plant-forward concoctions piled atop the droids’ flat noggins. 

I didn’t sleep for days, especially after a co-worker floated the idea that eyes and smiles should be painted on the bots to make them more human-esque. Where were you two weeks ago with that tip about pot and pepperoni pies?

Since Will Smith’s impromptu audition for Rocky XVII during the Oscars, I’ve steered clear of anything involving awards. So I’m not going to follow your format. But I think we’re on the same page about the non-stop barrage of plant-based item. When I snuck down to the facility’s basement-floor McDonald’s for lunch, I implored my order taker, “Give me anything with meat—real meat, from real animals. You don’t even have to bother cooking it.” I can’t help but wonder how many of the 51,000 other attendees did the same.

Like you, I had a few samples that made me literally gag and test my abilities to hit a garbage can from 30 feet. There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to what worked and what nauseated. Since the trend started with burger replacements, you’d think a plant-based steak would work. Uh-uh. Not even close.

Yet one of the better products I tried was a faux-fish sandwich. Who’d have thought pea protein could be a workable substitute for haddock?

There were some clear sub-currents to the mega-trend of meat standbys being reformulated out of plant matter. As the husband of a vegetarian, I can attest that soy and seitan were the usual building blocks of early beef and chicken substitutes. I’d say at least three out of five of the plant items I tried at the show were made from peas and garbanzo flour.

Those ingredients have the benefits of being safe for consumers who suffer from soy or gluten sensitivities. They also avoid the wholly ungrounded fear that too much soy can prompt men to grow breasts, a topic that arose during the panel I moderated on plant-forward menus.

That session also validated what I saw on the show floor: The new frontier in the plant-forward movement is the replacement of seafood.  Because the actual items are so expensive, manufacturers have more leeway in developing analogs, which tend to be costlier than what they replace because of the processing and ingredients that are needed.

But as I believe we can both attest, nothing is out of reach of the plant-forward movement. I’m still marveling over one booth’s chickpea-flour sunnyside-up egg, whose “yolk” ran just like the real thing.

I’m (pleasantly) surprised that you weren’t as struck as I was by the prevalence of bots at the show. They were everywhere, usually in the form of rolling multi-tiered barstools that could carry orders to a table or dirty plates to a dish room. Mixed into their ranks were more functional but less attractive-looking gizmos, like a robotic floor cleaner and a crane arm that moved fries in and out of a fryer.

They were so plentiful that the show’s planners are thinking of having a whole robot pavilion in future years. (Both the conference and Restaurant Business are owned by Winsight.)

If there was an overriding takeaway, it had to be that the show was back in full force. Business was clearly being conducted on the show floor, and the crowd was in good spirits.

Even the robots seemed pleased.

Members help make our journalism possible. Become a Restaurant Business member today and unlock exclusive benefits, including unlimited access to all of our content. Sign up here.


Exclusive Content


Brands shift their attention back to smaller operators

The Bottom Line: While plenty of franchises like Subway still want large-scale franchisees, there is a movement to keep their sizes down.


Should Cracker Barrel get out of the gift shop business?

Reality Check: The retail component of the family dining concept drew off sales and profits during the brand's most recent quarter. Maybe it's time to leave the shops out of future Cracker Barrels.


Wendy's, whose chairman is an activist, may be getting an activist

The Bottom Line: Activist investor Blackwells apparently plans to nominate “several directors” to the burger chain’s board, according to Reuters.


More from our partners