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Top 10 restaurant trends from this year’s NRA Show

Four days of walking the show floor raises more than just blisters for the trend-hunting observer. Here are 10 restaurant trends that we kept encountering in our journey through the National Restaurant Association’s annual convention in Chicago’s McCormick Place.

1. Bread is back

Gluten-free be damned. Despite the chatter about the need to menu gluten-free options (as well as the prevalence of gluten-free booths in years past), traditional bread vendors made their mark at McCormick Place this year. From simple buns to artisanal loaves and even ethnic varieties such as naan, operators looking for a new sandwich or table bread had plenty to sample. But bread was not the only hot carb; cookies were prevalent on the showroom floor as well as in restaurants across Chicago. Sunda, for example, promoted its plate of assorted Cookie Bites as a go-to group dessert.

2. Cooking without coils

Induction burners and induction kettles led the displays of many vendors at this year’s NRA Show. Some of the more innovative models were stackable and portable, an option for caterers who want to eliminate open-flame heating elements. The main issue for some: The need to invest in a new line of magnetic cookware that works on these cooktops.

3. Go green … with everything

During Technomic’s Fast-Casual Trends & Directions conference on Friday, Marc Simon, president and CEO of Carlsbad, Calif.-based Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill, mentioned an upgrade to the concept’s disposable plateware and silverware to improve the guest experience and better compete in the crowded fast-casual market. He and other operators had plenty of compostable options to check out at the show, including one set of plates, bowls and more made from a combination of bamboo and sugar cane. But plates weren’t the only noticeable green initiative. Instead of handing out pens, the most-seen marketing gifts at this year’s show were reusable cloth bags, branded with different supplier names and logos. And many touted eco-friendly back-of-house cleaning supplies, offered at a similar price point to traditional cleaning supplies, thanks to improved technologies.

4. Ginger penetrates food and drink

Alcoholic ginger beer. Ginger-and-herb soda. Ginger candy. Ginger syrup. Ginger-marinated seafood. Ginger cookies. The ginger flavor was everywhere at this year’s NRA Show. The selling point, said many: ginger’s spicy-meets-sweet flavor gives it legs, offering a complex note that pairs well with a variety of other ingredients.

5. Tableside payment

While the full back-of-house capabilities of tablets in restaurants have yet to be recognized by the masses, more operators are seemingly interested in the restaurant trend of bringing their payment system in front of the guest, given the number of people crowded around tech-forward vendors’ booths. Aisle after aisle, vendors demonstrated tablet cases with credit-card swipe functions. While the operators may be interested, they still have concerns, namely upfront costs and data security.

6. Retro vibe hits barware

Coupe glasses dominated the glassware scene this year. Martini glasses and other cocktail flutes were still on show, but they were pushed behind these vintage glasses with a shallow bowl and thin stem. The tendency towards coupe glasses likely stems from the current restaurant trend towards retro cocktails such as Moscow Mules and Old Fashions. Plus, these glasses supposedly result in less spillage of a cocktail carried to a table compared to a V-shaped martini glass.

7. Behind-the-bar appearance

A lap through the International Wine, Spirits & Beer Event proved one thing—it’s just as much about how your back-bar looks as it is about what you’ve stocked. From gaudy skulls to ornate glass rectangles, liquor bottles have become works of art to put on display, hopefully getting consumers curious enough to order these premium liquors. The creative designs weren’t limited to booze bottles, though. Many beer suppliers proudly showed off nontraditional brand-specific tap handles for their draft beers. To display those handles, several vendors back on the showroom floor showed off a variety of sleek beer-tap systems, made of different finishes to match already in-place bar designs. And in the same spirit of the beer taps, wine dispensers with a new-age design offer by-the-glass capabilities.

8. Talk of the town: employee treatment

While there were educational sessions on implementing healthcare and developing employees, this trend really came to our attention while talking with different operators throughout the NRA Show. When asked about the most important part of running a restaurant business, multiple operators uttered the same response without a second thought. “Take care of your people,” said Tony Grellak, vice president of sales for The Cheesecake Factory. That way, he said, they are happy and take care of your guests.  Rich Hicks, founder and CEO of the Plano, Texas-based Mooyah burger chain, had a similar answer, stressing the fundamentals such as smiling, cheerful employees.

9. Quick-cook solutions

“Done in 90 seconds” was a popular phrase uttered by exhibitors. Suppliers rolled out a variety of ovens—from mini pizza ovens to shuttle-style hot-air ovens—that emphasize speed of cook time.  And it makes sense; as the competition from nontraditional foodservice retailers continues to encroach on restaurants, quick and convenient kitchen solutions allow operators to produce restaurant-quality dishes at convenient-store speed.

10. Rebranding of faux meat

The popularity of vegetarian concepts such as Chicago-based Native Foods Café proves that analogue-meat products are no longer just for vegans. To make these plant-based proteins less intimidating to meat eaters, suppliers are changing the vocabulary. Instead of soy, seitan or other unknown terms, the products are being marketed as “vegan shrimp,” “vegan chicken,” “vegan steak” and more.

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