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Key Themes from the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago

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Dorothy Calba Bio

The National Restaurant Association Show is a conference that brings together professionals from across the foodservice industry to present new ideas and showcase product innovations. In its first iteration since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2022 show in Chicago showcased pandemic era solutions alongside forward-looking innovations, with much of the focus on the latter. The show sought to look past the survival solutions that emerged during the pandemic and towards the adjusted future of restaurants, and eating more broadly. Many of these innovations represented three key foodservice themes: plant-based eating, back of house restaurant management platforms, and sustainability in packaging.

This year’s National Restaurant Association Show signalled that the plant-based eating trend will remain front and centre and rapidly expand for years to come. The conference had two large plant-based eating display areas, featuring multiple companies in nearly every category of plant-based eating, including meat alternatives, non-dairy cheeses and ice creams, and animal product-free snacks and baked goods. While plant-based meat alternatives have existed for decades, the plant-based scene in recent years has been in a race to create alternatives that are as close to animal products as possible, following and encouraging the trend of plant-based eating amongst non-vegans. Plant-based food companies have adjusted to present their products as not just an ethical choice, but one that is healthier for the average consumer. The company Eat Just, for example, specifically markets its egg alternative products as an easy adjustment for non-vegans. Overall, the show exemplified the continued expansion of plant-based eating, and while clearly growing rapidly now, the competition continues to heat up, pushing new entrants into new varieties of products, such as seafood, snacks, and baked goods.


Source: Euromonitor’s Product Claims and Positioning

Digitalisation in the foodservice industry, a growing trend prior to the COVID-19 pandemic which has rapidly accelerated since early 2020, was another key theme at the National Restaurant Association Show. In response to an overwhelming influx of digital orders throughout the past two years, many restaurant operators have been investing in digital infrastructure to better manage restaurant operations, efficiently process digital orders, and provide consumers with user-friendly ordering and payment systems. Digital services on display at the show ranged from integrated point-of-sale systems from companies such as Clover and Toast, to smart food pick-up lockers from Apex, to AI-driven data analytics platforms such as ClearCOGS, which uses historic data and machine learning to predict food preparation needs on a daily basis, with the goal of improving efficiency and reducing food waste. With global demand for digital ordering expected to continue to grow throughout the forecast period, the demand for and necessity of digital infrastructure solutions will only continue to increase. The variety of solutions on display at the National Restaurant Association Show highlights the growing demand for these services and the significant role they play within the broader global foodservice industry.

imageda84.pngSource: Euromonitor’s Consumer Foodservice System, 2022 Edition

Driven primarily by the growth of digital ordering in the foodservice industry, demand for packaging innovation has been steadily rising over the past few years. Keeping food fresh and attractive is a key consideration for restaurant operators managing large volumes of off-premises orders for delivery and takeaway. Sustainability in packaging, while somewhat overlooked throughout the early days of the pandemic, as health concerns and safety took precedence, is coming back into focus for both the restaurant industry and consumers in 2022. Sustainability was a key theme at the National Restaurant Association Show, where exhibitors showcased many iterations of plant-based and/or biodegradable packaging solutions. Innovative packaging made from moulded starches, sugarcane fibres, biopolymers and more exemplified the latest developments in materials science and emphasised the growing importance of finding sustainable solutions to increasing packaging demands. From the consumer perspective, reducing plastic usage and using sustainable packaging rank among the top behaviours to lead a more sustainable and eco-friendly lifestyle.

imagei24cw.pngSource: Euromonitor’s Voice of the Consumer: Lifestyles Survey, 2022

The National Restaurant Association Show in 2022 highlighted how pandemic era innovations and pre-pandemic trends are merging to create a new normal in the restaurant space. Plant-based foods were growing before the pandemic, but now meet with healthy eating trends that emerged in the pandemic. Growth in packaged foods during the pandemic helped plant-based expand and innovate, and now restaurants are looking at how to harness these trends in their dining rooms. While digitalisation was on the rise in the restaurant space pre-pandemic, the rapid expansion of digital platforms and ordering during the pandemic has created new forms of app-based restaurant management that will continue to expand post-pandemic. Delivery was on the rise pre-pandemic as well, but the intense expansion during the pandemic has led restaurants to rethink what their packaging looks like post-pandemic. The pandemic accelerated trends in the consumer foodservice industry, fundamentally changing how consumers view their relationship with food and restaurants.

For further insight, read our report Consumer Foodservice in the US. 




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