Photo by Jonathan Maze
The first National Restaurant Association Show in three years wrapped up this week, giving attendees a four-day immersion into the restaurant world.
Here are 10 things we took away from the show this year.
The mood was surprisingly upbeat
We say it’s surprising simply because of the environment outside the show. Stocks plunged. Costs are skyrocketing, so much so that there is growing concern about the state of the independent operator given the dramatic erosion of profit margins. No one seems to know when this will end. Oh, and the pandemic is still here.
Still, the mood among attendees remained optimistic. Although we heard complaints, the mood was positive. Maybe it’s because sales remain strong – we’ve heard from more than one operator that the last two months have been strong – or maybe everyone was just happy to be here after three years. .
Your food will come via robots
Each show has its singular product that marks the biggest trend of the year. When fast casual pizza was a big deal, we kept finding pizza ovens, for example.
This year it was the service robot that looks like something out of a Star Wars movie. While robots of all kinds were a popular attraction at the show, the service robot was by far the most popular. You didn’t have to go far to find one. Robots are typically intended for full-service restaurants where they bring food to a customer’s table. Restaurants added them to offset some labor costs. But it remains to be seen how popular they will be.
And it will be made from plants
Cows, chickens and pigs are out. Chickpeas, pea protein and mushrooms are all the rage. The biggest food trend by far was plant-based meat analogues. If a product traditionally comes from an animal, there is someone trying to imitate that using plants and all of them were on display this week.
Plant-based chicken was popular, as well as plant-based sausage, plant-based beef (of course), lots of plant-based fish, a weird plant-based egg, ice cream at herbal and even a new term “animal-dairy free”. Our Heather Lalley tasted a few and wrote about a few she liked. We tasted some and didn’t like most of them (although we really liked the Beyond Meat sausage if we’re being honest, and the animal-free dairy was outstanding).
Still, we’ll stick with South Chicago Packing’s Wagyu Beef Tallow Fries, the best thing we’ve tried during the show.
let’s goose drink sales
Beverage sales have been a problem ever since people started ordering takeout in droves. Beverage innovation has been massive. There were new types of drinks, some of which we liked, others that we tried and then desperately tried not to spit in front of the vendor. Yes, Coke and Pepsi had their huge booths on display showing all sorts of stuff, but beverage innovation was everywhere.
Companies had many mocktail options which is usually good. But even packaging companies like Georgia Pacific had potential answers to the lack of beverage sales with its automated sealing machine, which seals takeout cups enough that they can withstand the bumpy delivery ride.
Well, QR codes don’t go away
These things were everywhere. You literally couldn’t walk on the lounge floor without one of these codes bouncing off your chest – they were on the badges, after all.
Operators love QR codes because they don’t have to print menus. They can save on labor and can collect customer data. But they don’t always work – publishers have seen many participants struggle to scan codes properly.
Data is a big deal
Speaking of data, this remains a huge area of growth. Of course, get excited about automation, including robots and artificial intelligence. But on the technology side, customer data was a close second.
Operators were curious about the best ways to gather and interpret information about everything from their guests to staff. Square was one of them: “We’re going to start getting really, really, really obsessed with giving you very tangible, actionable insights. [data]said Bryan Solar, head of restaurants at the tech provider, during a Sunday session.
And the restaurants are shrinking
With so much emphasis on takeout, there’s less focus on customers dining in. It is certain that these customers will continue to dine at full-service restaurants, especially for special occasions. But restaurants will need fewer seats and more of them are looking for smaller spaces.
It was evident during the show. More equipment needs to be versatile, able to do a lot in a smaller space. There were espresso machines that could pump drink after drink into a small space and even a brew machine that could turn a bar into a brewery in just 150 feet of space.
Equipment delays remain an issue
As our Peter Romeo pointed out, the gear was full screen, but good luck getting it. Equipment delays remain a major problem. Frank Inoa, vice president of design and engineering for Inspire Brands, said during a panel moderated by our Pat Cobe that delays cause problems even when trying to reconfigure existing equipment, as it can take several weeks just to get a part. And it’s unclear how long those delays will last.
It was all about cost control
Equipment manufacturers always like to tout their products’ ability to improve profitability – this is after all a business-driven event – but this year the idea took center stage, given the margin issues. Even a towel dispenser on display at Georgia Pacific, which controls the number of towels available to customers, had costs in mind. The founder of a line of reusable containers also focused on cost when touting his idea. Costs are top of mind for operators right now, and providers know it.
But not everyone can afford new technologies
Yet, as pointed out in a session on artificial intelligence, profitability remains an issue. Several session attendees asked about costs, and one implored panelists to keep struggling freelancers in mind.
The simple fact is that many operators now have thinner margins than when the show last ran in 2019. This means they have less financial means to afford some of these new technologies. A big challenge for sellers going forward is to make their case and then find ways for smaller restaurants to afford what they’re selling. Because as we noted at the outset, profitability remains a challenge.
Yet overcoming challenges is what this company is all about. Those who have seen the show have withstood the worst of them for more than two years and have been able to come out the other side.
Editor Joe Guszkowski contributed to this report.
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