4 big questions raised by the National Restaurant Association Show

Reality Check: The industry's largest gathering provided nearly everything an operator could want, but it posed some tough questions as well.
National Restaurant association show
Photo by Jonathan Maze

Restaurateurs could find just about everything they needed at the industry’s annual convention—except for answers to a handful of questions the show itself raised.  Here are some of the big-picture queries that struck us while walking the floor or speaking with attendees, each presented in the way an operator might have asked.

Q.  We can’t get all the supplies we need from our vendors, yet many of those very same companies were exhibiting at the show in hopes of landing more orders. What’s up with that?

A. You’re looking for reason in a situation that defies it. Restaurants’ supply-chain problems are widely likened to a game of Whack-A-Mole, since shortages of one item or another tend to pop up, throw everyone into a scramble for substitutes, and then disappear as quickly as they arose. If there’s a pattern, wiser minds than ours have yet to spot it.

Nor does there appear to be a single bottleneck. The kink can come anywhere in the journey from the raw-material stage to a restaurant’s backdoor, and the variables seem ever-changing. Suppliers can be as much at the mercy of upstream parties as operators are.

The emerging best practice is to increase the number of sources an operator can tap for a product. Exhibitors were merely eager to help in that process.

Q. Several speakers at the show cited Hawaiian food as an emerging menu trend.  Were you as surprised as we were to hear that?

A. Yes, to be frank. Our menu mavens flatly admitted they’re not seeing it, or at least not yet. One member of our team suggested the wave will never grow bigger than putting pineapple on pizza, which is why we don’t let him write many menu stories.

The issue seems to be what observers are labeling a Hawaiian trend.

Restaurant concepts that hail from the islands have surely been in a growth mode—think of how many poke places popped up right before the pandemic hit.  Similarly, shaved-ice stands have come to the mainland here and there. And Hawaiian Bros Island Grill, a 30-unit concept specializing in Hawaiian-style lunch plates, ranked as the fastest-growing chain on Technomic’s latest Top 500 sales ranking.

So the trend referenced by speakers at the show seems more of a reference to Hawaiian concepts quickening their growth, and not to poi becoming the next boba tea.

Q. Every other booth at the show seemed to be hawking some sort of plant-based item.  Is this the mega-trend it appears to be?

A. Yes and no. Between 8% and 9% of consumers want to find a plant-forward item on the menu, according to new research aired by Technomic at the start of the show. That analog-craving group is too large for any mainstream chain to ignore, according to the researcher, yet it’s not large enough to prompt universal adoption, the way the industry has embraced burgers or sodas.

Customers who pursue a vegan or heavily plant-forward diet are extremely adventurous, Carin Stutz, CEO of the all-vegan Native Foods chain, said during an education session devoted to the meat-analog trend.

As a result, the show abounded in plant-based items that went far beyond burgers. Exhibitors sported everything from a plant-forward fish sandwich to meatless steaks.

Q. Was there a consensus on the impact of inflation?

A. Oh, yeah, and it wasn’t an encouraging one. Technomic noted that menu prices are soaring at the steepest rate in 40 years.  “We’ve reached new heights. The question is, How are consumers reacting?” asked Joe Pawlak, managing principal of the research company.

Sticker shock has been tempered in part by inflation’s prevalence, according to Pawlak.  “Consumers are reacting to inflation overall, not just menu prices,” he explained. “The price of everything seems to be going up.”

Indeed, 8 of 10 consumers are worried about the effects inflation will have on all aspects of their lives.

But it’s already triggering some belt-tightening by restaurant users: 37% of the consumers surveyed by Technomic said they intend to dine out less often.

The National Restaurant Association Show is presented by Winsight, the parent company of Restaurant Business and Technomic.

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