As usual, there were plenty of trends spotted during the National Restaurant Association Show last weekend in Chicago — from mobile to POS systems, and from equipment to the main reason everyone was there in the first place: the food.
If you're looking for menu ideas, here are some of our observations from the show floor about what's hot right now:
Healthy kids' food: According to the NRA, many exhibitors have reworked their products to fit new school nutritional guidelines. Prominent among them were baked snack chips, whole wheat crackers, pretzel snacks, mini whole grain pancakes, powdered peanut butter, candy gelato and granola clusters.
The Healthier Kids Fare Pavilion made its NRA Show debut in 2011, with no hint of slowing down.
Beverages: Coffees, specialty coffees, smoothies, juices, teas and iced teas were prominently featured throughout the show floor.
The trend toward broader beverage menus is being embraced for a reason: high margins. For example, Amy Alarcon, vice president of Culinary Innovation at Popeyes, called her company's sweet tea gallon program "liquid gold." "It's been hugely profitable for us and now that we've gone through that initial process of developing a (compatible) beverage, the sky's the limit," she said.
Greek yogurt: There were 25 yogurt-related exhibitors on the floor this year, many of them featuring a variation of Greek Yogurt. The rising star was available not only by itself as a healthier snack, but also as an alternative ingredient in lieu of mayonnaise or sour cream. Greek frozen yogurt was also on display as that subcategory continues to grow.
Breads: Say goodbye to the basic bun; this year has been all about more versatile bread carriers such as flatbreads and naan. The movement is led by a growing sandwich space and the desire for operators to differentiate within that space. A representative from Grecian Delight Foods admitted that trend was reflected during the show through "significantly increased traffic and interest" at the company's booth. He added that attendees this year were, indeed, looking for alternatives to traditional bread carriers.
Spices/sauces: The NRA reported that visitors this year were more interested in spices and their "super food" properties, such as the healing qualities of cinnamon, tumeric and cayenne pepper. Flavor-enhancing sauces have also been in focus as of late, as customer palates grow more sophisticated. There were more than 65 exhibitors this year showcasing sauces.
Snacking is, without a doubt, on trend as operators look to appease consumers who are craving a mid-afternoon or post-dinner pick-me-up. Nearly 60 exhibitors took advantage of this demand identifying themselves as snack food providers, showing off everything from nuts to mini donuts, and pretzels to popcorn.
Snacks were also well represented on the Food and Beverage Innovations Awards winners list, including Dawn Foods' TasteFills, Kiki's Spinach Feta Pockets and Merry's Chocolate Miracle Mini Tart.
Gluten free is no passing fad
The NPD Group recently revealed that 30 percent of U.S. adults say they want to cut down on or eliminate gluten from their diets. In response, gluten-free offerings on menus have grown 275 percent since 2009. This staggering increase was also evident at the NRA Show.
"Last year attendees still needed to be convinced (about the importance of gluten-free), this year we were more of a destination for them," said Beckee Moreland, director of gluten-free industry initiatives at the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness.
Mike Vorhees, from R.W. Bakery Co., agreed.
"I'd say two years ago, attendees looked at our gluten-free products and said 'oh, that's nice.' Last year, they were asking questions. This year, they know they have to add it and there have been many more visitors," he said.
To complement the growing demand for gluten-free, alternative ingredients were featured prominently throughout the show floor, such as quinoa, millet and buckwheat.
Trends from a kitchen perspective
It's somewhat subjective to gauge trends simply by observing show floor activity, so we talked to some experts about what menu trends they're seeing.
Cody Pierce, vice president of Marketing for Pizza Ranch, said pop-up international flavors have been on trend, such as chipotle and Asian, as well as spicy such as habaneros. In June, the company is adding a Meaty Tahiti and Aloha Salad with couscous and sundried tomatoes.
Other dining demands include freshly made/prepared offerings (his brand, for example, just added fresh chopped coleslaw), an increased demand for a breakfast solution and more attention to visual appeal, both in the food and the restaurant's interior design.
"I think customers are looking for more intimate, conversational dining spaces now," he said.
Pierce reiterates the gluten-free trend as well, as Pizza Ranch just required its franchisees to include the company's platform this year. The previously opt-in platform was moved to permanent as a result of consumer demand.
Mike Best, COO of Boston's The Gourmet Pizza, added that gluten-free is part of a bigger trend toward healthier, fresher menus. His brand added hand-breaded preparation in the fall in response to this demand.
"People are more sophisticated about their food than they were 10, 20 years ago," Best said. "We could streamline our hand-pressed dough and make it easier, but that's not who we are or what our customers want."
Stemming from that increased level of sophistication is a demand for bigger flavor, according to Rebecca Stone, senior director of food and beverage at CiCi's Pizza. To be on the mark, CiCi's recently added a new garlic profile to the menu, featured on the Italiano Garlic Pizza and the Garlic Parmesan Knots.
In Stone's opinion, the biggest menu trend, however, is nutrition in general. CiCi's has expanded healthier options especially within the past two years, for example with the Italiano Veggie Pizza (at 87 calories per slice) and the new baked chicken wings.
Stone said it's important to be mindful of what's going on throughout the industry, especially in the fine dining segment. "That's where menu influences are introduced. Then they trickle through the rest of the industry," she said.
Finally, Scott Boatwright, senior vice president of Operations at Arby's, weighed in on what his brand is seeing from its guests, noting that the sweet/salty combo is huge.
Salted caramel, for example, was showcased throughout the show floor, in ice creams, candies and cheesecakes. For Arby's, the trend has been verified with the success of its new King's Hawaiian roast beef sandwiches.
"Sales for the King's Hawaiian sandwiches have far exceeded our expectations. Two weeks in, we can't keep it in productivity. We expected to sell 7,000 cases a week. We shipped 30,000 cases last week," Boatwright said.
Arby's will ride the salty/sweet wave a little bit longer, as it plans to introduce a salt caramel shake in the fall.
Photo provided by mandiberg.
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Alicia Kelso has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.