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06.01.2022

Observations From the National Restaurant Association Show 2022: Experiential + Ease

After a two-year hiatus courtesy of the COVID-19 pandemic, the long-awaited National Restaurant Association Show was back in action last week! As an absolute delight to the senses, this year’s much anticipated show did not disappoint. The electric vibe, culinary delicacies and experiential elements at every turn infused foodservice attendees with renewed passion and offered a variety of inventive solutions.

Innovation is key to success for this mammoth industry, predicted to hit $898B in U.S. sales in 2022.1 Even with the current easing of the pandemic, labor and supply chain challenges remain constant with no short-term end in sight. Additionally, high inflation costs have only exacerbated operator obstacles as they look for ways to continually entice their customers while also remaining profitable. A theme throughout this year’s show was evident: how to ease pressures on foodservice operations while still enchanting customers. 

Innovative Solution: Handcrafted With Convenience

During the lockdown, we saw an increased consumer desire for premium products as well as the emergence of the confident cook. Together these trends drove consumer demand for high quality, artisanal foods, evidenced by a variety of exhibitor solutions wisely playing that angle. User-friendly par-baked and fully baked breads, pastries and pizza crusts were in abundance, and my sampling efforts confirmed a fresh, delicious eating experience. Columbus Craft Meats fully embraced the charcuterie board trend, providing foodservice-specific packaging of four popular types of salami, easily accessed and curated for quick assembly of a handcrafted board. The dry aging trend was proudly on display with products like the 3D cabinet from The Aging Room, designed not only to age premium meats but to also function as an impressive experiential visual for restaurant patrons.

Innovative Solution: Menu Shifts With Ease

Menu item counts saw steeper cuts thanks to the pandemic, with menus shrinking 10.2% during COVID, resulting in 59.7% of restaurants reducing their menu size.2 With current challenges like supply chain, labor shortages and inflation impacting operators, this lower menu item count trend is likely to stick around for the foreseeable future. Still, the right mix of familiar and new menu items keeps customers coming in the door. So, simplicity and ease on operators are key components to success. Tyson Foods nailed it with their spicy, breaded chicken breast and waffle sandwich, wrapped individually in butcher paper for operator ease and customer appeal. Wise to the impact of inflation on menu items, Compart was at the ready with high-quality pork cuts sought by operators to offer consumers both premium pork and steak options. 

Innovative Solution: Reset Around Takeout

This year’s show amplified the foodservice reset around takeout. After all, 64% of food ordered from restaurants in the United States last year was either for takeout (43%) or delivery (21%).1 Additionally, more than 80% of restaurant operators across all segments said they expected their off-premise sales volume to stay the same or increase in 2022, compared with 2021. 1 Not surprisingly, Door Dash and Uber Eats made their support known with substantial booths. Technology got in the game as well, including a variety of warming and cooling cubbies for to-go orders, some requiring a customer code for pickup. Furthermore, improved to-go packaging solutions seemed to be here, there and everywhere, with an emphasis on earth-friendly materials. Interestingly, a larger sustainability story did not take center stage, with the notable exception of the plant-based brands extolling their environmental claims to show visitors.

Missed Opportunity for Meat?

The alternative meat and alternative seafood brands were omnipresent and made their mark. As Restaurant Business observed, “If you were to land on the floor of the sprawling National Restaurant Association Show from a distant galaxy, you might think the inhabitants of this planet do not consume animal protein.” You might also presume that robots are inhabitants of earth, given the number of serving robots roaming floors passing out food samples, including plant-based. Larger booth spaces were occupied by well-established players like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat® who found themselves surrounded by countless smaller entrants. Notably, alternative seafood brands were plentiful as well, evidenced by the plant-based and cell-cultured offerings from Finless. Non-dairy, and tasty, ice cream options like Eclipse and Temptation seemed to appear at every corner.

An Experiential Vision for the 2023 NRA Show

I couldn’t help but find myself wishing that a collective meat industry presence was felt as strongly on the show floor. Some individual brands attracted long lines and successfully drove it home via experiential plays like Vienna Beef’s Chicago style hot dogs with a street-like presentation complete with umbrella stands. Also making an impression was the Allen Brothers lineup of several chefs grilling tasty samples from their beautiful display case.

The Allen Brothers' meat case at NRA 2022

The Allen Brothers’ Meat Case at NRA 2022

Still, what if next year’s show visitor could become immersed in a full-on meat experience the way we felt bombarded by plant-based this year? One success factor of the plant-based brands was the sheer number of them in the same location, combined with numerous, well-informed staffers circling the booth’s perimeters with samples in hand. Even the Bellavita Italian Pavilion got in the experiential game, encouraging visitors to leisurely wander while sampling various made in Italy products like espresso, pastries, pastas and pizzas.

What if meat companies, and related products, joined forces for 2023 NRA and created an experiential Center of the Plate village? Just imagine steaks, burgers and bacon sizzling on multiple grills, mouthwatering aromas wafting through the air, elaborate carving demonstrations manned by influencer chefs – all demonstrating in real time the delectable sights, smells and tastes the meat industry has to offer. After all, experience and engagement emerged as critical to success at this year’s show. Who’s with me on this? Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work for next year!

1National Restaurant Association, 2022 State of the Restaurant Industry, January 2022
2Datassentials, Menu Trends: The State of the Menu, 2021

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