Over 63,000 foodies from around the world convened in Chicago over the weekend for the National Restaurant Association's annual gathering, the NRA Show 2016. Sustainability and technology were two hot topics this year as a variety of sessions discussed both topics, and a multitude of vendors presented products to help restauranteurs tackle sustainability or to use technology to enhance their customer experiences.
Here are just a few of the highlights from this year's event.
Increasing emphasis on sustainability
From 100 percent compostable food packaging and reclaimed wood furniture options on the show floor to entire educational tracks dedicated to food waste and responsible sourcing, the theme of sustainability was evident throughout the entire show.
Lura Abshire, NRA director of sustainability policy and government affairs, said this year's NRA Show featured many innovations aimed at making restaurants more sustainable while also being cost effective.
"Sustainability can be a great way to save costs in your restaurant," Abshire said in an interview at the show in Chicago."One of the things we are seeing a lot is the tracking of inventory — the food coming in and going out of your restaurant."
Seafood sustainability was also key. One of the recipients of the NRA Show's FABI awards this year went to Australis for its barramundi, a sustainable alternative to snapper, grouper and sea bass. Farmed using best-in-class sustainability practices, the fish is rated a best choice by the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch. Australis CEO Josh Goldman said his goal is for barramundi"to become the global white fish and allow the world to meet its need for fish without depleting the oceans."
And the issue of food sustainability isn't just related to back-of-the-house cost savings or food sourcing; it is an important issue for menu development as well. In the NRA's 2016 survey of top table-service menu trends, environmental sustainability ranked 6th among operators' trend rankings.
Clean and locally sourced is here to stay
In that same survey, it is clear that the local"trend" isn't going anywhere."Locally sourced meats and seafood" took the top spot on the survey, and"locally grown produce" ranked 3rd. As attendees walked the floor from booth to booth to visit with various food suppliers, many of the food companies touted their commitment to local sourcing and food traceability.
Almost as prevalent on the show floor was an emphasis on"clean" ingredients and labeling. The Sweet Street Desserts booth was packed at all times as it was featuring its new Manifesto line, made with cane sugar and real butter, cage-free eggs and sustainably grown chocolate.
Technology is going strong
Brands like Wingstop, Groupon, Uber and Red Robin were just a few of the major brands discussing how food technology is woven into every aspect of their business.
"Hospitality is all about providing services to your guests that meet or exceed their expectations," said Stacy Peterson, chief information officer for Dallas-based Wingstop Inc."From a technology standpoint, that means a seamless brand experience through your digital storefront." Peterson spoke during a"State of Hospitality Technology" panel as part of the NRA's Fast Casual Industry Council.
And while technology was abundant across the show floor and within the sessions, new NRA research presented at the show revealed many restaurant operators still feel they are lacking in the art of tech.
Presented in an education session at the Show, the soon-to-be-released Restaurant Technology Survey 2016 found that restaurant operators agreed that technology could help increase sales and enhance customer service. However, barriers of implementation hamper progress and lead a third of restaurant operators to say their operations are lagging in tech use. Only about one in 10 believe its establishment is leading edge.
"The restaurant industry is very labor intensive. Average sales per employee are about a quarter of what they are at grocery stores, for example," said Hudson Riehle, the NRA's senior vice president of research, said at"Mapping the 2016 Restaurant Technology Landscape," where the research was presented.
"Technology can help boost productivity and efficiency in restaurant operations, but it's important to choose the right processes and systems to make sure it doesn't make the customer experience more complicated," Riehle said.
Franchisees and chain-operated restaurants have a higher rate of technology adoption, likely because of the resource network they can tap into through their brand, said Annika Stensson, the NRA's director of research communications and co-presenter of the session.
"Independent restaurants have to basically start from scratch on things like smartphone apps and POS systems."
What was the most important trend you witnessed at the show? Leave your comments below.