6 top trends spotted at the National Restaurant Show

Here are just some of what RB’s editors uncovered during the Show’s four days.
meal kit
A meal kit arrangement featured at the Show. / Photo by Patricia Cobe

As the National Restaurant Association Show comes to a close, RB’s editors have had a chance to sift through the many trends that bubbled to the surface at the Chicago event. Here’s just some of what we uncovered during the Show’s four days.

Provenance matters.

Leaning into growing demands for menu transparency, several exhibitors highlighted sourcing in the marketing at their booths. “Bean to Cup” was seen on the signage of at least two coffee companies, and “From Seed to Fork” was on a booth promoting frozen soups and other products.

Everything’s gone mini.

Several companies are downsizing products to feed the growing snacking and grab-and-go trends. Individual portions of feta, goat cheese and hummus can come in handy for operators creating snack boxes and meal kits, and one Wisconsin cheese producer was promoting “Perfect Bites,” a vanilla wafer topped with mascarpone cheese and a banana chip, as a snack. Meanwhile, rice was transformed into a “rice nugget” at the Thai rice booth. The rice was shaped into a small nugget, coated with batter and deep-fried to eat on the go.

Beef belly takes over the barbecue.

Pork belly has been the darling of chefs for a while now. But at Flavor Forays Championship BBQ & Cook-Off, beef belly was featured in an inventive preparation. Devin Kreller of Wood restaurant cooked up Smoked Beef Belly with lotus root, nouc cham, basil, peanut and lime, infusing the meat with Asian flavors.

It was one of 14 dishes offered at the taste-around, where Asian flavors elevated several of the dishes with ingredients like galangal, lemongrass, yuzu and red curry.

Loyalty gets an upgrade.

Kevin Boehm, co-founder of Boka Restaurant Group and one of four panelists in the session “Chart Your Course: Traversing What’s Next for the Restaurant Industry,” drives repeat visits to his 22 restaurants with an exclusive Boka Black Card.

The card is awarded to guests who book frequent reservations through platforms like OpenTable. The next time a loyal guest dines at a Boka concept, a “reservation concierge” brings the card to the table, wrapped in a beautiful box. The card includes an email and phone number that the customer can use to book a reservation from then on. “Even if the restaurant seems completely full, we can usually slide them in,” said Boehm. “And the spend for guests with Boka Black Cards goes up by 40%.”

Transparency around fees is needed.

More restaurants are charging service fees, but customers don’t know where the money is going, said Boehm. The majority of consumers don’t object, but they want to know what the fees go towards—healthcare benefits? Back-of-house workers? Or something else?

A broader view of staff benefits.

Speaking of healthcare, just 40% of hospitality employers in the U.S. offer such benefits, compared to 90% of employers overall, presenters noted during a Monday session on staff health and wellbeing. At the same time, other sorts of wellness initiatives may be gaining traction. A survey of 18 F&B businesses by Kendall College found that nine were offering Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and similar kinds of mental health services, nine provided some form of career development, and six had inclusion and social justice initiatives.

For operations that can’t afford to offer wellness packages and things of that nature, 80% of worker wellness is how they’re treated on the job, said Deborah Popely, associate professor and chair of hospitality management at Kendall College, noting that a positive, supportive environment can go a long way.

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