Day 2 at the Show: Shifting labor models, menu controversies and the rising popularity of podcasts

The crowd got thicker and the energy kicked up a notch on Sunday at the National Restaurant Show. Here are some takeaways from the editorial team at Restaurant Business.
Entrepreneur Doreen Gardner, CEO and founder of Papa's Brittle, is a first-time exhibitor at the Show. | Photo by Lisa Jennings.

During the second day of the National Restaurant Association Show, there were many more miles to walk and so many more delicious things to taste and sample. The Show floor at Chicago McCormick Place was packed, and so were educational sessions. Here are a few trends the Restaurant Business team noted on Sunday:

A shifting labor model

Third-party delivery has caused some real headaches for restaurant chains’ labor strategies. At Tropical Smoothie Café, Chief Marketing Officer Deborah Von Kutzleben noted that the company used to determine labor based on sales. “But if you think about increasing prices, that wasn’t the best indicator of how to best serve the guest and the ebb and flow of customers,” she said. Now, she said, the company is using traffic patterns to determine labor. “It was a little bit of a no-brainer,” she said.

Randy Gier, CEO of NRG Restaurant Group, said that a burger chain his company used to own generated most of its sales through delivery even shortly after the pandemic. And many of those orders would come shortly before close. The company tried opening later, but customers would notice it and would order shortly before close, anyway.

“We had to completely redo our labor model,” he said. —Jonathan Maze

Everyone has a podcast now

Show attendees may have noticed a lot more microphones on the floor this year. That’s because many vendors have transformed their booths into podcasting/video studios.

“People are breaking into the hospitality podcast space,” said Sanna Nour, head of partnerships, influencers and events marketing at OpenTable, in between shooting videos at the company’s booth. The format lends itself well to short clips that can be shared on social media. And it gives the industry a new way to connect.

Shawn Walchef, restaurateur and founder of Cali BBQ Media, has been hosting a B2B restaurant podcast for seven years. “I think that the restaurant industry has finally started to understand that people are on the internet,” he said of the proliferation of pods. 

He uses his podcast to educate a highly dispersed industry on the topic of digital hospitality. He said it has allowed him to connect with people all over the globe that he would not have met otherwise.—Joe Guszkowski

Controversy comes to the menu

Creating controversy is one of the five trends that can grab customer attention. There are three ways to introduce controversy to the menu, said Lizzy Freier, director of menu research and insights for Technomic, during her presentation on Guest-Winning Menu Trends at the National Restaurant Show on Sunday. KFC did it recently through a controversial preparation, pairing chicken with pizza for its new Chizza. And Starbucks’ olive-oil infused Oleato drinks were another example she pointed out.

Controversial ingredients are another lure. Cocktails are jumping on this trend. Jemma in Los Angeles launched a drink called Pasta Water, a mix of gin, olive oil and salted pasta water, while the Earth Cocktail at Jolie in New Orleans incorporates MSG anchovy brine—an ingredient that increases umami but MSG had a bad rap for a number of years. 

Freier pointed to controversial descriptors as the third attention-getter. Dirty Sodas are the most popular interation. Sonic Drive-In’s recommendation that customers add coconut cream and lime to any drink to “Make it Dirty” is a prime example.—Pat Cobe

The Show from a first-time exhibitor

The Show is always about what’s new and trending, but sometimes it’s also about discovering what’s old can be new again.

A perfect example is Papa’s Brittle, a small-but-growing new startup out of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Founder and owner Doreen Gardner took her mother’s peanut brittle recipe and has turned it into a retail business.

She was a reluctant entrepreneur. She had retired after years in telecommunication and had looked forward to a life of leisure. Her mother made the peanut brittle as a gift around the holidays, and had a list of some 200 beneficiaries. When her mother’s health started to fail, she asked Gardner to take over.

Initially she said no, but her father talked her into it. Her mother didn’t want to sell the candy, but Gardner thought she’d try anyway, posting on Facebook about the brittle. She sold 200 pounds in three days.

In 2021, she launched the company. Now at age 71, she has a manufacturing facility and her products are sold online, but also in some retail stores and she also supplies some ice cream shops. It’s her first time at the Show and the feedback has been amazing, she said.

“I’m finding it’s not just about restaurants but making connections with so many businesses,” she said. “It gives me confidence that I’ve got a great product.”—Lisa Jennings

Tech bites dog

If there’s a consensus on the most visible trend at this year’s show, it has to be the shift in emphasis on the two main exhibit floors from food to tech. You can still get eat enough French fries and cheese cubes to raise a cholesterol score by 30 points, but now you’ll pass three booths of cutting-edge digital gizmos before taking your second bite. It’s a trend that’s been building for some time, but now the drift is so evident that you’ll hear talk of it on the shuttle busses or at the Starbucks. Or as you wait in line for that free Nathan’s hot dog—across from the booth showing the latest capability from Toast.Peter Romeo


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