NRAft

Every spring, nearly 60,000 restaurateurs, suppliers, and foodies gather together for the annual National Restaurant Association (NRA) Show in Chicago, where the latest restaurant innovations and trends are shared among the who’s who of foodservice. Some attendees come to sample new flavors and food styles; others are at the show to learn from the best in the business or to pick the brain of a celebrity chef.

This year, customer-focused service, products and innovations rose above the rest.  Among the nearly 2,000 exhibitors, here are a few trends that stood out from the pack and you’re sure to start seeing in the year ahead:

Not your typical water

It’s no secret that sparkling water has started to make a comeback in recent years. However, bubbles were just the beginning at NRA. New takes on the standard bottled water packaging were many. Resembling a beautifully designed milk carton, a clear crowd favorite was Boxed Water is Better – highlighted by sustainable packaging complete with clever copy. Another busy booth featured VOSS water. Glass-bottled and sleekly designed, the artesian water is available in both still and sparkling.  Beyond stunning packaging, a variety of other water-related products debuted at the show – including new flavors of sparkling water, like Mountain Valley’s blackberry pomegranate, and new carbonation systems for restaurants looking to create their own custom flavors.  As more customers are looking for low-calorie yet flavorful beverages, savvy restaurateurs should turn to sparkling waters with interesting and seasonal flavors.

Gluten-free is here to stay

While in the past gluten-free foods seemed to be more of a natural and organic trend, this year, gluten-free has asserted itself as a mainstay. Gluten-free eaters had a wealth of options to choose from at this year’s show, and it’s only a matter of time before those products appear in restaurants near you. A highlight for many show-goers was certainly Eli’s Cheesecake Company, which sampled a delicious gluten-free cheesecake. Companies looking to provide customer-focused menu items should explore (or expand) gluten-free options.

Healthy eating for all

A few years ago, kale was a relatively unknown vegetable, and now, it seems to be on nearly every menu across the nation. Kale may have started it, but healthy eating continues to grow in importance for consumers and restaurateurs alike. This year’s show was filled with discussion around how restaurants can meet consumer demand for healthier options. Sunday featured a lively panel, titled “Create a Healthier Plate for Your Menu,” where chefs and restaurant owners weighed in on how to create a delicious and healthy menu while keeping costs down. While many look to whole, healthful ingredients, other companies were launching healthier versions of well-loved foods. Jennie-O was on site with low-fat pepperoni and sausage pizza – a definite crowd pleaser. What will be the next big thing in healthy eating? Rumor has it that cauliflower-based dishes might start appearing on menus near you – be on the lookout, or be one of the first to embrace this movement.