Our Perspective on the 2022 National Restaurant Show

One possible vision of the future was very much on display at the NRA show that wrapped up last week: A shiny world of delicious plant-based proteins prepared and served by robots to diners sipping non-alcoholic cocktails while telling one another about their latest quest for a life of health, wellness and plant-based bliss.

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Well, maybe.

We saw one attendee spit out his plant-based-protein sample while telling anyone within earshot that it tasted like – well let’s just say different.

While there were many artful presentations of plant-based innovation – getting a taste of the main act was sometimes difficult, if not impossible. The “dressing up” of plant-based suggests many in the category still have a way to go on taste, texture and aroma.

A few more thoughts on plant-based, which dominated this year’s show to an extent that surprised us: The clean-label trend has not gone away. Nor has health and wellness as an emerging trend. For consumers to fully embrace plant-based proteins, the companies that make them will need to find reformulations to cleaner labels with healthier halos.

If there were any doubts that restaurants are beset with a new set of post-pandemic challenges, they were put to rest by strolling the vast swaths of exhibit-hall space dedicated to technology and automation. Robots were everywhere – servers and fry cooks, of course – but also robotic baristas, bartenders, bussers and pizza makers. Automation will ease the pains of the restaurant labor shortage, and by automating repetitive and unpleasant tasks, operators will find it easier to train and retain workers. And we expect BOH automation will impact many food companies who will need to redesign pack sizes, shapes and formats to meet the requirements of new labor-saving equipment.

We found many of the booth set-ups uninspiring. There were exceptions: Lunchbox Technologies had fun swag, Red Bull had a neat on-brand pit crew challenge, several companies offered trippy VR-goggle experiences, and Bluefina carved up a fresh whole tuna. But overall, the booths were scaled down from previous shows, more functional than before and lighter on creativity and showmanship. Smaller budgets and lingering pandemic concerns might have been factors. We believe that for next year’s show, savvy exhibitors can make waves by investing a little more in booths that offer visitors something out of the ordinary.

Beyond the show floor, there was quite a bit of action. Attendees were treated to big events, like the NRA BBQ, which featured an amazing array of BBQ signature dishes from both the chef and supplier communities. In addition to the big events, several suppliers welcomed attendees back with culinary celebrations throughout the city. Smithfield’s Meat & Greet event at Lizzie McNeill’s drew hundreds of revelers to Chicago’s Riverwalk.

We were happy that FoodMix could participate in this year’s NRA show and have a drink or two (make ours with actual alcohol, please) with our clients, friends and industry colleagues. We enjoyed the upbeat vibe. Our observation was that people were glad to be back in person, noshing, schmoozing, collaborating and together moving the restaurant industry into an exciting future.

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