CHICAGO -- The National Restaurant Association Show overwhelmed us with new tastes, new takes on familiar tastes and enough foodservice equipment to feed an army of restaurateurs and retailers.
Here are six highlights from the trade show and conference held May 19-22 in Chicago that surprised our editors …
1. Plant-forward proteins
The number of companies showcasing plant-based proteins hit the double digits this year. Exhibitors showcased burgers, pulled “pork,” sausages, deli “meat” and sashimi made with everything from pea protein to jackfruit—and no animal protein whatsoever. Big players such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger were there, as well as newcomers such as Ocean Hugger Foods with its Ahimi (shown here), meant to be a sustainable alternative to raw tuna for sushi.
2. Meat’s not dead
As much as plant-forward proteins built buzz at the show, meat-based products continue to innovate. Brakebush showcased the trend of chicken for breakfast with its brunch burger made with a chicken patty, bloody mary-spiked cream cheese, spicy pickles and grilled asparagus on an English muffin. Manufacturers such as Nona Lim jumped on the bone broth trend with both foodservice packages, as well as grab-and-go, microwaveable cups. Broaster had its Smokaroma pressure smoker cooking up meat to complement its chicken lineup. And Jennie-O couldn’t keep up with attendee demand for its turkey drummettes—white-meat wings that are a portable meal or snack.
3. Taste this
We saw a mind-boggling number of unlikely flavors coming to new products, from beverages and syrups to frozen yogurts and beyond, on the tradeshow floor. Among them: lavender, hibiscus, cucumber, papaya, pomegranate, tamarind, prickly pear, nectarine and even pretzel as a flavor.
4. The digital age
The digital soda fountain isn't just for Coca-Cola products anymore. While Coke unveiled the first hardware upgrade to its Freestyle machine—larger screen, more-intuitive interface, Bluetooth connectivity for crews—since its launch in 2010, PepsiCo and Cornelius also featured their own high-tech dispensers. The Pepsi Spire promises a smaller footprint, while foodservice-equipment maker Cornelius’ IDC Pro is a touchscreen model with two heads that allows convenience retailers and restaurant operators to offer Coca-Cola and Pepsi products, among others.
5. Creative sweets
Manufacturers continue to look for creative ways to deliver sweet indulgences to consumers. Dawn Foods had on display a broad range of doughnut applications, including options made with its custom-printed frosting. Antunes showcased its new partner, Nordic Waffles. The turnkey offering includes frozen batter and a waffle maker, which produces soft, chewy waffles in less than two minutes that can be used for multiple purposes.
6. Food or beverage?
Not only are daypart lines blurring, but so too are the boundaries between food and drink. At the Vitamix booth, chefs were blending up acai “bowls,” which are essentially smoothies so thick they require a spoon. Adding to the food-drink mashup, the chefs were adding coffee to the bowls, allowing consumers to get their caffeine fix in food form. Coffee in a Cone, meanwhile, is a turnkey program that allows operators to serve cappuccino in a waffle cone; the consumer drinks the beverage, and then eats the cone. And Arctic Buzz showed off an ice cream that contains flavored vodka.