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Top trends from the 2023 Restaurant Show

Well another National Restaurant Show is in the books. In this month’s blog, Donovan Wong of The Biz-Link Group joins us as a guest blogger to share his insights from walking the 2023 show. Donovan has outlined his thoughts and top 5 trends first, and then we asked hime a few pointed questions to round things out at the end.

Donovan: I honestly can’t remember how many times I’ve been at the NRA in my career but it’s easily over a dozen years. As always, it was fun to reconnect with customers and vendors as well as seeing industry friends in person instead of on video calls. Plus who doesn’t enjoy Chicago’s food scene? This year I had a chance to explore the trade show floor with Jeff Miller of Cutting Edge Innovation and here are some of the trends I personally gleaned from this year’s show. What’s interesting is that probably the biggest trend for me was really not seeing a breakthrough trend where food and beverages offerings were concerned. However, the ones I listed below were takeaways as a means of seeing what might resonate with customers. Note that these were also present in some form or fashion with the other trade show I’ve attended earlier in 2023 – Biofach, Gulfood, Fancy Food Show, and Natural Products Expo West.

Here are my top trends from the 2023 show in no particular order:

  1. Refresher style bubbler beverages. These were prolific at the beverage lead booths like All Friends, Coke, Pepsi, Dr Pepper/Tractor and Nestle all showing their perspectives on lemonades and alternative caffeinated drinks in a dispensed format. Most of the major coffee chains have introduced a Refresher type program and I have yet to find one that hasn’t been successful.

  2. Twists on plant based. The major players (like Beyond) still have a strong presence where plant-based meats are concerned but I personally was impressed by some of the new technologies and formats that were being offered. Two in particular that caught my attention from a quality standpoint were a tri-tip/burnt end product from Meati and Konscious Foods’ sashimi type product demonstrated in a poke bowl. The quality of these items has improved dramatically since their inception and it’ll be interesting to see how they might appear on menus in the new future. Other items that were relatively new in the plant-based space was a nacho cheese sauce from Savencia, macadamia milk based lattes from Milkadamia, and a vegan mayonnaise from Vegano Foods.

  3. Acai bowls. This trend was one that I wasn’t suspecting as it’s been around in most smoothie chains for quite a number of years but it was noticeable that there were more fruit bowl offerings at this year’s NRA. Several booths were offering scoopable as well as ready to blend options which not only included the traditional acai but also pitaya (dragon fruit), passion fruit, and even spirulina.

  4. Co-Branding with nostalgic brands. It was great seeing that there are options now to use classic products in dessert formats with the brand name sugar as Baby Ruth and Mother’s Animal Cookies. While I personally didn’t see it, a colleague of mine also mentioned seeing some items featuring Skittles and Starburst.

  5. Safe flavors. While the Natural Products Show in March had Indian and Asian flavors as a major theme, I really didn’t see a lot of companies pushing the envelope with flavors such as these. The dressing and condiment suppliers that I visited still had their classic offerings (Ranch, Caesare, Bleu Cheese, etc.) as did many of the beverage booths who may have been creative in showing items like blackberry lemonade but nothing too crazy beyond that.

Jeff: These are great insights Donovan! Was there any big overarching trend you saw at the show?

Donovan: Automation and AI was being talked about a lot at the show and many suppliers were showcasing their products not only as being innovative but also easy to use at an operational level. The industry is figuring out with labor challenges how to make things more efficient behind the counter while continuing to satisfy their customer on quality, service, and value.

Jeff: How are beverage trends evolving?

Donovan: Refreshers style beverages and lemonade in particular continue to involved with either better taste (more like fresh and less processed tasting) with either a flavor twist such as blackberry lemonade or with some functionality, usually some type of caffeine source that’s non coffee.

Jeff: You mentioned AI and I’m seeing a lot of robotics and AI - what role do you think they’ll play as the industry evolves?

Donovan: While there may have only been a few booths showcasing technology to offset people-related labor, many booths were incorporating as part of their sales pitch on their products how easy they are to use. Hence, there’s a stronger focus on ease of operations that I usually didn’t hear as a lead pitch before. I feel this stems from restaurants still struggling with HR aspects of their businesses. I believe this is coming as Biofach and Gulfood, the two international shows I was able to attend in early 2023, did have robots working their booths! Plus, at the Specialty Coffee Show in April, robo-baristas were a social media hit. In addition, I’m hearing that in places like Dubai, they are already testing the idea of robot chefs too with next to no people interaction (order off a screen and the robot prepares and cooks and serves your food). It’s an exciting time we’re getting to experience for sure and it’s something I’ll be keeping my pulse on.

Thanks again to Donovan for contributing his great insights on what’s hot and what’s next!


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