The NRA (National Restaurant Association) Show, held at the truly enormous McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago every May, is the world’s largest trade show for the restaurant and hospitality industry.
The 2014 Show enjoyed unprecedented success in terms of attendance, with more visitors coming from abroad to connect with other high-powered buyers and influencers interested in everything from ingredients and beverages to technology solutions and products. Andrew Merrett attended and reports back on the highlights from the event.
The fact that this was another year of strong growth for attendee and exhibitor numbers at the NRA Show really demonstrates the optimism being felt by both hospitality businesses in the US and their suppliers, including a growing number from the UK keen to build their presence in the US. The event offered everything needed to achieve success in the hospitality industry – from knowledge to hands-on implementation, from quantity to quality, from variety to value, from innovation to traditional well-proven solutions, the NRA Show had it all.
Spanning three enormous halls at McCormick Place, the NRA Show floor covered over 610,000 square feet and featured more than 2,200 established and emerging supplier brands showcasing more than 900 product categories. On the Show floor, the high energy created by the new exhibitors was evident and included 102 new tech and entertainment brands, 134 food producers and 135 equipment manufacturers.
A quick glance at the exhibitor listings guided you to booths that represented countless cuisines, from Brazilian to Italian, Chinese to Middle Eastern. From the international exhibitors showcasing their brands, innovations and new products, 24% were from Europe, representing the third most important group of international exhibitors.
A vast range of activities under one roof
This year, the Show was also split into a number of specialist categories to make it easy for buyers and sellers of products and services to find one another through focused areas of the floor.
These pavilions were destinations showcasing suppliers and manufacturers addressing today’s key trends and interests. Prominent areas included:
• Alternative Bitestyle – dedicated to those products that operators need to find to satisfy special dietary needs on their menus, such as gluten-free, allergy-focused, low-sodium, vegetarian, low-sugar and beyond.
• Conserve Solutions Center – which showcased sustainability-related products and services that increase customer attraction and retention by reducing carbon footprints and demonstrating environmental responsibility.
• The Organic & Natural Pavilion – provided a central, dedicated exhibit area that helped buyers easily find certified organic and natural products.
Besides an impressive selection of exhibitors and specialty areas, the Show also showcased key events that highlighted trends happening in our industry:
• Foodamental Studio – a brand new area of the floor which translated into a hands-on crash-course workshop, where you could try out the processes and techniques behind the most talked-about culinary trends of the year.
• World Culinary Showcase – where world-class chefs demonstrated recipes, tips and techniques live on stage. Chefs featured included Rick Bayless, Marcus Samuelsson, Anne Burrell, Cat Cora, and Chicago’s own Primehouse chef, David Burke. Burke explained the patented aging process he uses for his meat and even cooked off a steak aged for 365 days!
• McCormick Place Rooftop Garden Tour – where participants experienced a sustainability ‘wonder’ first-hand. This event highlighted a prime example of urban agriculture at work with a visit to the Midwest’s largest rooftop garden.
• Over 80 free education sessions – which brought together trending topics and industry leaders for the ultimate experience in education.
Trends and innovations
What makes a trend and will it really be the next big thing? That is the million-dollar question, though the consensus from many people I spoke to was that trends are the concepts that people are talking about and attracting interest, or ideas and products that are starting to be more evident in the marketplace. Here are a few of the products and services that had a strong presence at NRA 2014, or that launched this year:
• Fast casual – is the fastest growing sector, and this links in with the general trend in the US for more snacking, eating alone and grabbing food on the go.
• Frozen yoghurt in a big range of flavours – birthday cake, peanut butter fudge, grasshopper pie, cinnamon donut, pecan pie, strawberry sundae, etc.
• Gluten-free, vegan and organic – a section of the Show was given over to this sector with producers demonstrating delicious gluten-free alternatives, plus new vegan and organic alternatives to mainstream dishes. Many mainstream producers were also keen to demonstrate new versions of their regular products that were now either gluten-free or available in a gluten-free format. Smartflourfoods.com was sampling its range of flours and mixes made from sorghum, amaranth and teff, and they were really tasty.
• Popcorn – machines to make popcorn using oil or hot air and using multiple varieties of corn, with flavours varying from plain salt or sweet to cheesy, and even clustered with honey and macadamia nuts.
• Web/social media marketing and one-stop solutions for video and web development. One particular company, mopro.com, was attracting a huge amount of interest from visitors.
• Schmacon – is a new product that won a FABI 2014 – Food & Beverage Innovation – and it is a smoked and cured glazed beef slice that tastes very like bacon but with less fat, salt and calories.
• Edible Chinese-style spoons – perfect for canapé receptions and buffets – were launched by ediblesbyjack.com.
• Pizza – possibly the biggest individual product available for sampling at the Show! Endless varieties of toppings, authentic Italian flour and gluten-free options too.
• Flavour combos and menu pairings – the US market loves its flavour combos and pairing new dishes and drinks together. It’s a constant push for innovation and unique offerings – as well as a way to modernise the old favourites or turn a regular product into a luxury one. Think new varieties of familiar dishes, single estate ingredients, ingredients with new finishes, more pickles and oils, and spices.
• Wood-fired ovens – linking in with the pizzas of course, but also available for cooking a very wide variety of dishes, and the ovens looked great – perfect for those open kitchen situations bringing the back of house
• Smoke-reducing equipment
– Italian firm smoki.it won a Kitchen Innovation Award for its Smoke Zapper, which eliminates 95% to 97% of smoke and soot particulate from pizza ovens and wood
• Smoothies – many companies were exhibiting their range of smoothie making equipment or the components to make high profit smoothies. Blendtec was also demonstrating its self-help smoothie machine, which could even operate as a vending machine.
• Signage – many companies were showing their flat screen and iPad style signage but one company (spellbrite.com) also launched a new range of LED neon-style lights – very cool!
• Cacao-based teas and tisanes were launched by Numi Teas – not available in the UK yet but coming our way soon.
• Displayware – the range of displayware companies and products at the NRA Show was mind-blowing and it was impossible to take everything in – there were probably tens of thousands of individual items on show! Every restaurant wants to differentiate in the way it presents its food and there were probably enough options on show to give every restaurant in the world the flexibility to create their own unique style! UK firms like Craster.com were attracting a lot of attention from US buyers for their exclusive displayware. Other US companies, like frontofthehouse.com and breadbaskets.com, also had great selections on show.
• Wooden and palm leaf disposables
– were very much in evidence this year with varieties made with thin sheets of veneer, special wood pulp and a wide range of disposable products made of palm leaves. Packnwood.com had an excellent range.
• Cocktail party plates – Holdaplate.com was promoting their new, award-winning mini plate, perfect for those cocktail parties where guests struggle to hold their plate and glass at the same time.
• Silicon cookware and mats – were abundantly available in all shapes and sizes, with exhibitors showing increasing uses
• Grease management systems and recycling systems – were much on show. The UK’s Greaseshield company won a 2014 Kitchen Innovation Award at the NRA.
• Frozen drinks – from smoothies and slushies to alcoholic versions.
• Chilli sauces – a wide range with bases ranging from a mild cayenne and medium jalapeño to top heat habanero sauce.
• Keurig’s new carafe brewing system – it uses something like a giant ‘Nespresso pod’ to brew flasks of coffee.
• Apps – from customer loyalty to social media, restaurant bookings to wait lists, stocktaking to online ordering.
• Wine preservation systems – from spray in argon gas or mini inflatable bags put into open bottles, to state of the art wine dispense systems. Wine preservation has become mainstream, with some exhibitors claiming privately that they would be happy to drink their wines a year after opening.
• Vinotemp – had a new glass chilling system, perfect for the busy bar that is running out of glasses and needing to use them straight from the glasswasher. The Vinotemp uses CO2 to rapidly chill the glass and give it that frosted look.
• Beyond zero ice cubes – ice cube machines that make ice from bottles of alcohol, hence below zero temp ice cubes (bzice.com).
• Bar stocktaking in a flash – a new app from partender.com that uses the camera on smartphones to rapidly take stock.
• Tea concentrate for cocktails – a tasty range launched by theowlsbrew.com.
• World’s first automatic cocktail beverage system – smartbarusa.com – this innovative ‘plug and play’ cocktail system can be ready to serve over 600 varieties of drinks – from soft drinks to cocktails – in seconds.
UK companies flying the flag for Britain
While several companies hosted country specific pavilions at the NRA, British firms, including Dudson, Craster Ltd, Environmental Products & Services Ltd (Greaseshield), Studio William, LoSalt, Wedgwood, Steelite, ResDiary and SteakStones, were also in evidence.
Many of the UK suppliers had sensed increased optimism from the US market. According to Katie Dudson, Dudson Group’s marketing manager: “We have a growing business stateside and it’s always interesting to compare the similarities and differences between the UK and US markets. We were launching a number of new ranges at this year’s NRA, from retro gingham prints to our new ‘Twist’ fine china collection, and there was a positive feel of optimism over there.”
Alex Craster, managing director of Craster, added: “We’ve had an incredibly positive response from US customers to our latest product launch, which is a modular buffet display system called Flow. It was our second time exhibiting at the NRA. The US is a targeted growth market for Craster and it was very reassuring to see so many of the major corporate clients seeking us out at the Show.”
The NRA Show 2015 will be held from 16th to 19th May 2015 at Chicago’s McCormick Place. Save the date!
Cultural factors spark shift in US eating
It’s no secret that US consumers now snack more, eat alone more and grab food more on the fly. The fascinating part is why. US food culture is undergoing a seismic shift that has people simultaneously more fascinated by what they eat and less inclined to cook it.
“This cultural shift puts a new burden on US food companies to create products that are fresh and healthy enough to eat regularly, plus tasty and interesting enough to compete with a host of restaurants, street food trucks, coffee shops and other food venues,” says Laurie Demeritt, CEO of The Hartman Group. “To fully understand what consumers want, it is important to study the cultural forces underpinning what and how they eat.”
Take snacking for example. While it’s clear that people’s busy lifestyles are contributing to a decline in traditional meals and a rise in snacking – which now represents half of all eating occasions – it is not so obvious that consumers put more cultural weight on snacks than they used to.
According to The Hartman Group’s 2013 report Modern Eating: Cultural Roots, Daily Behaviors, there are several key drivers for snacking:
• 73% of snacking is physically driven. That includes 44% hunger abatement plus 15% nutritional support and 12% bursts of energy to combat lethargy.
• 36% of snacking is emotionally driven. That includes 23% ‘time markers’ to create structure in the day, plus 13% boredom alleviation and 6% reward, encouragement or temporary alleviation of discipline.
• 28% of snacking is socially or culturally driven, including people bonding around food without committing to a full meal and those discovering new cuisines and flavours.
The percentages don’t add to 100, because there is overlap.
However, they do not overlap with aimless snacking, which represents a whopping 27% of all snacking, boosted by the constant availability of food and beverages. Aware that food is always nearby, people eat even when other drivers are not present. Aimless snacking is often underreported, because consumers forget or re-categorised it as ‘purposeful’, and it has major implications for obesity and other health and cultural issues.
Eating alone is on the rise too. Nearly half (47%) of all eating occasions now take place with a single person eating alone, many of whom live in multi-person households. Consumers now enjoy eating alone. It gives them time to catch up on work, reading and television programmes and allows them to nourish themselves without having to wait for family members who are going in all different directions.
Finally, there’s the advent of ‘immediate consumption’, an occasion that goes beyond restaurant meals to include food bought on the go, and often eaten at home. This occasion stems from a variety of changes in lifestyle and values including: the diffusion of food management within families, less food planning because of busy schedules, as well as individuals, including children, wanting to customise their own meals (a vegan daughter, a gluten-free father). The result is people grabbing whatever looks good just before they eat it.
For further information, go to www.hartman-group.com and download the executive summary.
International Wine, Spirits & Beer Event
The 7th annual IWSB was also held over two days in the middle of the four-day NRA Show and it posted positive growth in both attendee and exhibitor numbers for the third year in a row. IWSB 2014 attendees were able to explore two new pavilions this year – Craftique, featuring limited-production craft and boutique wines, spirits and beers, and Bar Necessities, showcasing products ancillary to, but critical for a successful bar programme, including mixers, glassware and ice.
The interactive demo lounges were also a great attraction where attendees trained with experts to gain practical, hands-on experience using the newest products and techniques. Participants interested in learning more about menu pairing could learn and get inspired at the Restaurant Menu Pairing Program, where attendees sampled the perfect marriages of food and drink throughout the floor to learn what’s possible when they truly work together. In terms of alcoholic beverage trends spotted on the floor, cork-free wine, dark spirits, Asian flavoured beer and Mexican imports were just a few.
The biggest trend was certainly the many different ways to store wine. On the Show floor, wine makers used bags, cans and even kegs to store and serve wine. Bonfire Wines, for example, sells wine in a pouch. The wine stays fresh for a month, takes half the time to chill, is quick for servers to open, and won’t go bad due to a dry cork, says Eric Steigelman, Bonfire’s founder. The company was one of the winners of the NRA’s FABI award.
In contrast with the consumption demand that started in the 90s, tastes for liquor are moving away from clear spirits. The popularity of whiskey was evident on the floor. Vermont’s WhistlePig distillery was present, showcasing its American-made whiskey. WhistlePig helped start the rye whiskey movement and continues to do well from it.
Asian flavours and spices, particularly ginger, were a big trend both in food and beverages. While Kooksoondang Brewery offered samples of its rice wine, rimming sugars and salts from Twang Partners included lemon ginger sugar and tamarind margarita salt.
For many beer fans, the bitter, the better. IPAs, which lead the pack in the US craft brew segment, experienced a 35% growth in 2013 but more beer trends could be seen at IWSB. Several breweries have started to use barrels to store their product – for example, the New Holland Brewing Company offered tastes of its Dragon’s Milk Bourbon Barrel-Aged Stout. Hard cider production has more than tripled since 2011 and is expected to become one of the top craft styles soon. At IWSB, suppliers were introducing innovative takes on traditional ciders, such as hopped cider.
As for Mexican imports, Americans are increasingly interested in drinking tequila and mezcal. Since 2002, US imports of tequila have grown 83%. Both high end and cheaper brands are flooding the market, translating into more options to patrons and even more appealing creative combinations elaborated by mixologists.