The National Restaurant Association’s annual Chicago get-together is more than an excuse to see old friends, have business meetings and eat more than one’s recommended daily limit of cheese and gelato. It’s a chance to be fully immersed in the latest industry trends. Here’s a look at the top themes that emerged from the show floor on day one of the 2018 conference.
1. Plant-based has reached a tipping point
No longer are cheeseless cheese, meatless meats and other plant-based menu items put in a corner. Vegan and vegetarian foods—from “bleeding” meatless sliders to soy-based gyros to dairy-free cheese—drew crowds to the show floor. The Beyond Meat booth, for example, looked like a bustling cafe as attendees waited in line to try fresh-from-the-grill burgers and sausages made from pea protein that closely mimicked the texture of animal protein. At one morning event, plant-based replacements for scrambled eggs, Italian sausage and tekka maki were served.
2. Sustainable packaging tries to move mainstream
With restaurants across the country looking at eliminating straws or switching to environmentally friendly ones, a number of vendors pitched eco-friendly packaging like paper straws, bamboo-based products or reusable to-go containers. McAlister’s Deli is testing a new line of sustainable packaging made with compostable materials. “Gen Z knows you’re moving in the right direction as a brand,” said Brandy Blackwell, the chain’s director of off-premise marketing, during a session on the future of the guest experience.
3. Recruitment continues to be a pain point
A standing-room-only crowd turned out for a session on hiring, training, rewarding and retaining workers. To combat the competitive labor market, TJ Schier, president of Which Wich Superior Sandwiches franchisee SMART Restaurant Group, told the audience that he passes out cards to anyone, anywhere who has given superior customer service, inviting them to apply to his restaurants. “Always be fishing,” Schier said.
4. Data, data, data and more data
From POS suppliers looking to help operators manage customer data to Yelp’s data-gathering WiFi platform, show attendees could not miss the importance of mining data to build loyalty and engagement. Positioning tablets on the tables at Red Robin has dramatically increased the number of guests who fill out customer-satisfaction surveys, said Michael Buchmeier, vice president of operations for the chain’s central division, during a session on the future of the guest experience. Now, the chain receives some 7 million survey responses each year. “That’s a powerful amount of data,” Buchmeier said.
5. Move over, millennials
Restaurateurs need to understand the importance of Generation Z, the fast-growing demographic that will make up 40% of the population by 2020. This generation doesn’t rely on traditional media channels, craves authenticity and demands value. Operators will need to engage with non-traditional media options, such as Waze, to capture this group, Blackwell told a packed audience at a session on the future of the guest experience. “Gen Z is driven by deals and discounts,” she said.
6. Extreme makeover: restaurant industry edition
The industry’s image is getting a major polishing, judging from studies underway from a number of restaurant-related associations. The International Foodservice Manufacturers Association is developing an outreach program for suppliers to communicate the benefits of a career in foodservice, group CEO Larry Oberkfell noted during the induction of the 2018 class of Silver Plate winners. The move echoes what’s being done on a number of fronts by the National Restaurant Association, as well as a few individuals.