Operations

At the National Restaurant Association Show, brands leveraged sustainability as a marketing strategy

As younger consumers look for social responsibility from the brands they interact with, food and beverage businesses are making sure to spotlight their sustainability efforts.
From Seed to Fork.
Many companies highlighted sourcing. / Photo by Patricia Cobe

Plastered around the Show floor at the National Restaurant Association Show this week was branding highlighting sustainability. From ethically sourced seafood to compostable packaging, many brands leveraged their eco-friendly initiatives during the event at Chicago's McCormick Place.

This could be an effort to attract younger consumers, particularly those in Gen Z.

Graham Humphreys, CEO at culinary innovation consultancy Culinary Edge, took to the stage on Tuesday in a session about how restaurants can attract Gen Z’s attention. Humphreys and Nikki Freihofer, associate director of strategy at Culinary Edge, noted that Gen Zers have $360 billion in disposable income, but they are eating out about 10% less than millennials did at the same age. This presents a huge opportunity for restaurants. According to Humphreys, marketing brands or products that resonate with consumers' social identity is the major way restaurants can attract younger consumers, but social responsibility is a close second.  

Likewise, in a Saturday session centered around Gen Z’s dining choices, Lindsay Lyons, group director of customer strategic insights at the Coca-Cola Company, and Robert Byrne, director of consumer and industry insights at Technomic, identified sustainability as a trend that resonates with Gen Z diners. When choosing where to eat, natural, sustainable and responsibly sourced items are significantly more important to Gen Z diners than those in other generations, except for millennials, Byrne noted.

Here’s a look at some of the sustainability trends we spotted throughout the Show.

Highlighting sourcing efforts

A few seafood brands noted their ethical sourcing efforts on their booths, and one even had a pamphlet that detailed where they source from. Beverage brands also leaned into sourcing as a marketing effort. “Bean to cup” was spotted across a few coffee exhibits.

Plant-based everything

One way sustainability comes through on the menu is through plant-based products. And on the Show floor, you could find plant-based alternatives for nearly everything. From eggs to ice cream and even oysters, plant-based alternatives took center stage this year.

Making frying oil more sustainable

At the Show, many frying-oil management companies leaned into the sustainability aspect of their companies.  Magnesol, a frying oil filtration company, said sustainability is often the second consideration when operations use its products.

Packaging galore

There was no shortage of packaging at the Show this year, and nearly all of the container vendors highlighted sustainability at their exhibits. There were numerous companies with compostable products, and many of those who sold plastic also had eco-friendly alternatives. Plant-based packaging was also spotted throughout.

No more paper straws

Operators looking for alternatives to plastic straws without some of the pitfalls of paper versions had plenty of options to peruse. Phade showcased its compostable straws, while Corn Next touted its biodegradable, corn-based straw. And others still offered samples of edible straws. 

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