Trends and Takeaways from the 2019 National Restaurant Association Show

Every year the National Restaurant Association (NRA) Show never fails to impress me with innovative head-turning exhibits that offer ingenious answers to a big, emerging industry trends. From food and drinks to products that make a restaurant operator’s life easier, to tools enabling them to stand out or drive more customer traffic, the show has it all and then some.

This year was no exception. As I walked the booths of the more than 2,300 companies represented, I was wow’d by what exhibitors were bringing to the table (no pun intended). This year’s highlights suggest restauranteurs are focusing on personalization, innovative products to meet evolving customer tastes and desires, and improving operational efficiency.

Customization is the Key to Customer’s Hearts (and Stomachs)

One of the most interesting products I saw at this year’s show was the Ripple Beverage Printer, which brings “signature drinks” to a whole new level. This product can print anything from logos to selfies on beverages ranging from beer and cocktails to cappuccinos. But of course, personalization goes beyond just a name on a drink.

Personalization has been an industry buzz word for many years, but only recently have we seen the technology to support it. New tools such as geo tracking, AI and machine learning have helped companies understand their shoppers’ needs and support them in creating products best suited for each shopper. From the Coke-a-Cola Freestyle that lets you have your drink your way, to kiosks and apps that increase sales through targeted upselling based on machine learning, we are in a time where high-tech is enabling restaurateurs to become high-touch.

Plant-Based Products Lead the Way

Something that stood out among all the amazing, and sometimes very strange, food I tried this year was the number of plant-based products featured at the Show. From cauliflower pizza crust to meatless burgers, sausage, and yes even vegan “eggs,” the array of meatless proteins was impressive. 

Over the past couple of years, plant protein has gained a lot of momentum in the market. According to CB Insights, the plant protein market is valued at over $11B, and more and more companies and restaurants are looking into how to incorporate plant protein into their menus beyond meat – think milk – nut milk, oat milk, seed milk, sweeteners – stevia, monk fruit made from plants, not chemicals, and even sushi.  Impossible Foods, which recently launched with mega brand Burger King, and recently IPO’d Beyond Meat were two of the products that have captured the minds, and wallets, of consumers. The reasons go beyond personal health or avoiding cruelty to animal. It’s also environmental. The energy and resources used to produce a piece of corn-fed beef leave a far greater carbon footprint than the plants used in meat alternatives.

But, There Still is a Place for Animal Products

That said, protein remains king, and there was no scarcity of animal products at the show. However, the products featured boasted sustainability, humane practices and more descriptors that could make consumers feel good about eating them. One stand out example was Trident Seafood’s protein noodles. This “pasta” checks all the right boxes for the modern consumer: it’s low carb, high protein, low fat and calories, sustainable and is a perfect palette for a world of flavors and cooking techniques.

Creating Efficiency Through Digitization

Labor has been a key issue among restaurant operators since the NRA held its first show in Kansas City  one hundred years ago. As rising minimum wage and lack of good workers continues to challenge operators, the show brought many unique solutions for increased productivity that either reduced or replaced labor. With rising labor costs, restauranteurs are keen to optimize operations in every corner of their business – from the hostess stands upfront to sparkling-clean restrooms in back.

Starting in the kitchen, H-eats Lava Gel promises to revolutionize catering and large-scale events where kitchens struggle to prepare a big meal without overcooking it. Flame-free heat from this handy gel keeps food warm and service-ready for two hours after leaving the kitchen.

Additionally, Bear Robotics promises to improve guest experience, and the bottom line, at restaurants with an automated food runner. Similar to a Roomba, these robots use AI to navigate a busy floor carrying food and drinks to tables. It even busses the dirty dishes after the meal!

Allied to this efficiency theme was a greater emphasis on digitization – ditching paper-and-pen in favor of integrated digital systems accessible anywhere, a concept Clover understands well. We talked to many restaurant owners about the value of automation to reduce labor, use analytics to enable smarter decisions and delight the guest – goals we saw repeatedly addressed across the show floor. We see this first hand with our Clover Dining operators using the order, fire from, and pay at table capabilities to enable servers to complete transactions without running back and forth to the POS (and thereby enable them to focus more on delivering exceptional guest service). More than 20 percent of orders for those who have this system are processed tableside, or on the patio, at a festival or anywhere the operator wants to make a transaction.  

It is indeed a time of incredible transformation through digital and product innovation, but all in the same effort to delight the guest as it was 100 years ago.