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Top Food Trends from the 2023 National Restaurant Association Show

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The National Restaurant Association (NRA) Show took place in Chicago on 20-23 May 2023. The show brought together players in food, drink, packaging and technology. Amidst a tense economic climate with constant supply chain disruptions and constricting consumer budgets, a few key trends have emerged as champions of innovation. Euromonitor International analysts at the event observed several of these trends.

Automation in consumer foodservice

Trends across foodservice ranged from menu product innovation to restaurant management tech solutions. Across the board, exhibitors looked to showcase ways for restaurants to innovate, especially as many remain short of staff and consumers are increasingly demanding wider variety, customisation and high-quality service. In order to balance consumer demands with the realities of labour markets many innovations focused on automation. Automated cooking methods can allow for many tasks to be managed by a single employee, facilitating reduced labour costs and the production of a consistent product. A prime example of this type of innovation is the Alpha Grill from Aniai, demonstrated at the show to cook up to 200 hamburger patties an hour and even to clean itself. Winner of one of the Restaurant Show’s Kitchen Innovations awards, Aniai is present in Korea’s Cry Cheese Burger and is looking to expand, hoping also to automate other kitchen activities.

National Restaurant Association Show Photo 1.jpg

                                                    Source: Euromonitor International, taken at the show

Other innovations at the show also demonstrated that automation can be incredibly useful as a tool to create a product that is currently not offered at a given restaurant because it requires specific skill. A prime example was the robotic sushi chef showcased by Suzumo. The automated sushi roll makers from Suzumo can be operated by foodservice workers without specific sushi experience. This can allow for a non-sushi-specific restaurant to expand its menu and reach more consumers (or could also allow a sushi restaurant to save time and manpower).

A shift to foodservice for plant-based

The past year was a pivot year for many plant-based food companies as retail sales declined for leading brands in the US. As the category of plant-based alternatives reaches the first stages of market maturation with slowing growth and a somewhat stable consumer base, plant-based and animal-free companies are shifting their focus to foodservice and were a prominent presence at the show this May. The NRA Show offered a glance at future menus, and they were loaded with plant-based options.

Over 60 plant-based and animal-free companies were present at the show, across all three pavilions, with plenty of product innovation, highlighting the next phase of this evolving category. Alongside burgers and nuggets emphasising nutritional benefits and taste profiles from companies like Not Co were several companies aiming to fill our plates with plant-based eggs. Until recently, this space was dominated by Just Egg, a product that saw great growth in retail this past year. Emerging companies such as Zero Egg and Yo Foods offered significant innovations in texture and experience. Notable was the Yo-Egg sunny side up, with a runny yolk centre.

There were also innovations in several white spaces for the plant-based category, notably seafood alternatives, with several booths offering innovative dishes such as shrimps by New Wave Foods, a turn from past years when most plant-based companies aimed solely to imitate fish. As with seafood, also prominent was the expansion of meat alternatives from ground products to whole cuts, with plant-based steaks from Chunk Foods, a specialised plant-based whole cut producer, and plant-based pork dishes from OMNI Foods. Both showcased products that can be used in casual and fine dining, expanding the scope of plant-based foods from their current prominence in quick-service restaurants.

Healthy indulgence trends continue

A seeming compliment to health trends in plant-based, “natural” and other health-adjacent claims were seen across diverse food exhibits. While dining out is not inherently unhealthy, processed foods are often associated with foodservice. As reflected in Euromonitor’s latest Voice of the Industry: Health and Nutrition survey, consumers continue to seek out ways to improve their eating habits. Notably, 64.1% of respondents selected increased consumption of fresh food and 37.5% chose decreased consumption of processed foods.National Restaurant Association Show Chart 1.svgIn response, various vendors at the NRA Show focused on highlighting positive health claims within indulgent meals. For example, cookies company Junita’s Jar touted “real” ingredients like real butter and pure vanilla “without the guilt that comes with added fillers and processed fats”. This branding is also made present on packaging. For example, its classic Chocolate Chip cookies proudly note “no trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavours, or preservatives”. Similarly, frozen ready-to-serve product player Tucson Foods displayed its Tamale Bites in comfort flavours, like Chipotle Chicken & Cheese. While these more indulgent products can be harder to sell under health claims, Tucson made sure to highlight “vegetarian” and “gluten free” labels within its Mexican Cheese Blend flavour. These and other similar product offerings at the show demonstrated efforts to appeal to consumers seeking out convenient comfort meals while staying mindful of specific dietary restrictions.

Overall, vendors at the NRA Show highlighted various efforts to stimulate consumer interest. From products tailored to diverse dietary trends to innovations automating foodservice operations, companies are looking to run a more efficient and appealing customer experience.

Learn more about the plant-based market in our report, Facing Plant-Based Challenges: Health, Price and Taste, to get ahead of trends informing the plant-based shift in foodservice.


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