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Transforming the Restaurant Experience: Top 3 NRA 2023 Takeaways

Justana Schilling

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Three business women standing in front of a large Heinz ketchup display that says National Restaurant Association Show
The Midan team was on the scene at the 2023 National Restaurant Association (NRA) Show to catch up on foodservice trends and see some old and new faces. With over 800 first-time exhibitors, more than double last year’s first-time attendees,1 the show halls and seminars were alive and full of energy with brands and solutions ready to solve challenges for foodservice operators. Among the action, the following trends stood out:

Labor challenges continue to drive technology and innovation.

Labor challenges were a pillar across NRA conversations and presentations. Sixty-six percent of operators say they are still understaffed.2 When it came to solving labor challenges, tech had a big presence at this year’s show. Numerous automized kitchen robots were on display. One bot was shown grilling a burger, deep frying fries and assembling a full meal to deliver to a customer while another, Bowl Bot, was shown creating a fully customized meal bowl and adding sauces on top without any supervision. While highly skilled and advanced robots were the technology showboats, many lower tech and investment options like point of sale and front of house technologies were on exhibit as well. Ordering at a kiosk or on an app is nothing new, but some companies are elevating the ordering experience. One new platform, Snackpass, features exclusive rewards that are shareable with friends and family, in-app reviews and social features. As we look at how Gen Z interacts with their friends, expanding the connection between friends and food is a new opportunity for restaurants. To win at foodservice: Consider technology that does the double duty of solving labor challenges while leveraging food’s social significance among younger generations.

Elevate and personalize the experience.

While many consumers say they are economically strained right now, they aren’t giving up restaurants. Seventy-four percent of operators reported having stronger sales this year versus a year ago. About the same number of consumers say their favorite restaurant is one that they can’t recreate the flavors or dishes from at home.2 Premium, global and elevated flavors are keeping visitors coming back to restaurants and those ingredients were showcased prominently. From premium meats brands and globally infused sauces to unique dining features like Ripple cocktails and coffees, experiential dining aspects were dotted across the NRA show. Consumers are continuing to look for something exciting and fun that they don’t have at home. This doesn’t mean it has to be totally new; a traditional concept that has been mixed up or reimagined is also inviting.

Dining out is more than just what you eat; it’s also about the atmosphere and the experience. Kraft Heinz Company’s foodservice division laid out a booth you didn’t want to leave. Around every corner there was a setup for the perfect social post photo and you could even get a bottle of ketchup with your name on it — talk about personal experience! Their brand was scattered across attendees’ social platforms and connected with individuals on a personal level. This same idea can work in restaurants, too. Restaurateurs and brands can add personalized and Instagram worthy features to their space to leave guests loving the experience so much they share it on their social accounts. To win at foodservice: Continue to elevate dining out by making the experience exciting, personalized and social media worthy.

Alternative proteins are moving in multiple directions.

Many plant-based and alternative meat brands were in attendance but had a quieter voice than last year. An interesting move in plant-based seemed to be a focus on cleaner ingredients and more authentic plant-based representation in the alternative meat space. New brands and products arising in the plant-based scene are simply trying to be a plant-based meal solution, as opposed to a plant-based meat substitute. Some products shown were a sliced mushroom that mimicked a burger patty or battered cauliflower nuggets that mimicked chicken nuggets. While some are trying to be genuinely plant, others are attempting to depict meat at new levels. Waygu®, a play on the premium cattle breed Wagyu, is a new premium plant-based meat. Other brands made similar plays on specific cuts or styles of beef to have a premium edge in the plant-based category. One of the biggest strengths of plant-based meat alternatives is the fact that they can innovate in ways the meat industry can’t. Retail sales of plant-based meats have been in a lull since the initial excitement of the products has waned, but there’s always a chance that something innovative creates renewed interest in the category. To win at foodservice: Keep real meat on the menu but also keep your eye on innovations and trends coming from plant-based meats.

Cultivating the restaurant experience was undoubtedly a big trend at this year’s NRA show. While eating out is a convenience for some, for many it is still about the experience. And to win at foodservice today, that means serving up food worth leaving home for and creating an atmosphere in which to connect both personally and digitally.

1National Restaurant News, National Restaurant Association Show, 2023
2Michelle Korsmo, NRA Show Keynote Presentation, 2023

About the Author

A former member of the National Beef Ambassador Team, Justana now acts as Midan’s Insights Coordinator. As such, she will uncover, develop, organize and articulate insights into compelling stories. Justana’s education includes a Bachelor of Science in Agricultural & Applied Economics and a Master of Science in International Agriculture with a focus in marketing. She interned at the Texas Beef Council and in Australia concentrating on production agriculture. In her spare time she enjoys being involved on her family’s cattle ranch, baking and traveling.

Bridget Wasser