The 96th annual NRA Show, held May 16th-19th at McCormick Place in Chicago, was a whirlwind of equipment, technology, products and samples to whet — and fill — the restaurant industry’s appetite. The lengthy lineup of education sessions sprinkled more than a dash of diversity and curiosity: How can women climb the ladder to executive positions in a male-dominated industry? Will marijuana in certain states start to infiltrate menus? And the samples — from a cheese loop to gluten-free goodies and from meatballs to frozen yogurt — were plentiful.
Though thousands of guests in the foodservice arena feasted their eyes on a vast array of products & exhibitors, we hone in, below, on 4 of our favorite trends that permeated throughout the Show.
1. Artisanal Products & Authentic Flavors
If you’re familiar with the Swedish culture, you’ve probably been turned onto fika, which translates to a daily tradition of drinking coffee. Fika provides an intentional, often scheduled break to take time for oneself while enjoying a cup of coffee and usually a sweet treat on the side. This is the DNA of Fika, a line of NYC-based boutique cafés that not only serve coffee, but specialize in handcrafted chocolates by award-winning Swedish chocolatier Håkan Mårtensson. At the show, Fika was doling out a variety of chocolates & treats, from cookie dough chocolate protein power bars to a hazelnut spread and spicy raisins — encased in ginger, cloves, cinnamon and milk chocolate.
Another minimally enriched, simple flavor product was Fever-Tree’s Tonic Water, a booth that lent a beautiful display of different flavor cases, including Indian, elderflower and Mediterranean, to name a few. Aside from its beautiful packaging, the tonic water is very versatile in usage, from a high-quality cocktail mixer to a complementary addition to an espresso. Pour the tonic into a tall glass of ice cubes while espresso is being put on, and simply pour the caffeinated drink into the tonic once done, mix and enjoy the fine, textured marriage of bubbles with hot and cold taste of duality.
2. Gluten-Free Goes to the Bar
From Kiki’s gluten-free deep dish and Venice Bakery’s thin crust pizza to ginger beer syrup and just about everything in between, gluten-free was a hot topic at this year’s NRA Show. In 2014, the Show boasted only a few GF options in one aisle, it seemed, but this year, gluten-free fans filled up just fine at the event. Started by three brothers, Pickett’s American Craft Ginger Beer is a gluten-free, all-natural concentrated syrup, and can be added to spice up sparkling water, soda or a cocktail. The blend, which consists of natural ginger extract, natural spices, cane sugar, water, citric acid and caramel color, comes in two flavors: Medium Spicy and Hot N’ Spicy. Available for both home usage and restaurants/bars, the medicine-shaped bottles boast the all-natural ingredient list. However, while still free of gluten, the bagged version for soda dispensers in restaurants is not completely all-natural due to a traditional added soda preservative.
A handful of booths promoted eco-friendly products to align with the sustainability wave that has hit the industry. Packaging is one green aspect that kept showing up at the Show — from plates to to-go boxes. But one of the standout booths for sustainability was Urban Cultivator, a hydroponic farming option (though it does have room for soil) for chefs, and is available for both commercial and residential use. The equipment has a small footprint and is similar to the size of a refrigerator, plus it is a cost-efficient way to grow greens FOH or BOH with easy accessibility to move around. Each of its four shelves are separately controlled with a pre-programmed control center, which self-regulates water, light and humidity levels. Think about the marketing payoff one of these cultivators brings when placing it FOH.
4. 3-D Printing
Sugar heptagons are the new sugar cubes. At least they were at this year’s NRA Show. With a 3-D printer in the center of Startup Alley, guests flocked to take a peek at the future of food possibilities. On display were shapes and ornamental figures of all sizes and colors of 3-D printed sugar. Cake toppers? A decorative, life-sized sugar skull? Dense ribbons? Check, check, check.
Also worth noting was the increase in NRA’s interactive engagement this year. A ServSafe “race” challenge quizzed guests’ knowledge on food safety while being timed through a step-by-step course. A giant whiteboard-based pillar allowed passersby to fill in how long they’ve been in the restaurant industry, what position they held initially and what position they currently hold, proving that the foodservice industry provides endless opportunities for career growth within. And an NRA photo booth plastered smiling guests on digital boards throughout the show.
What were some of your favorite booths and products at NRA Show 2015? We’d love to hear about it in the comments section below!
Stay tuned for more post-NRA Show coverage.