Chew on This! What’s Tasty in the Restaurant Industry?
Presenting the First Course of “Food Week”
Here I sit in the Admirals Club at O’Hare, savoring the past six straight days of product sampling, speaking, and interviewing foodiepreneurs, restauranteurs, and food techpreneurs — as well as established name brands.
The first three days were all about what’s new in the restaurant world (The National Restaurant Association Show and the “dessert” of the second half was a Willy Wonka-esque trip to the Sweets & Snacks Expo.
Thanks to the tens of thousands of steps tracked on my Fitbit and the wonders of the hotel gym — along with a little self-control — I will not be needing a seat belt expander on my flight home. The shows, however, were stuffed with insights, innovations, and new trends and technologies that have a huge impact what we eat, how we eat, and where we eat in the years ahead.
First…What Was Hot at the National Restaurant Association Show?
I’m boiling it down to the top 7. It was tough, but here it goes:
- The experience of the show itself was a great one. The organizers arranged a media breakfast, during which we could preview innovations (like mungbean eggs from JUST, coffee in a cone, breakfast sausages from Beyond Meat (see below), a self-contained plant growing system called Sprouts.io, and a 3D printed chocolate lobster and other “accessories from Procusini). I stayed at the Gwen, which was both comfy and cool. My daughter walked the floor with me one day. Sharing a fun conference — like sharing a great meal — makes the experience better. (See my Inc.com column for other tips on how to make trade shows worthwhile.)
- Plants are the new meat. Beef, pork and chicken now have no hoofs, horns, or feathers. At one point in the show, I saw the founders of Beyond Meat and Impossible chatting in the aisle. Clearly, they are creating a new food category, which really does taste very meatish. Before the Butcher also offered some delicious true-to-animal samples. The booths were mobbed throughout the show. I also sampled some incredible Carla Lee’s organic nut burgers. Although we’re eating more meat (see chart below), how it’s raised has become important to carnivores. Watch for my Sweets & Snacks post, where I review my fave meat sticks and jerky.
- Chop, chop! Who has time for food preparation? I saw robots and machines that made sushi, tossed salads, made drinks and jello shots, and peeled vegetables. But if you think a pineapple needs the touch of a human hand, you can still invest in a Gotze Peeler.
- Service with a smile — or a remote. Once food is prepped (with the assistance of technology and robots), it’s time to give it to the guest. Technology is transforming the way restaurants hire servers and deliver meals to customers.
- Finding hospitality staff or finding a gig in a restaurant is now as easy as finding a date on an app. Snag, Harri, ShiftPixy (which even shows gigs on a map) and Talent Reef are just a few of the companies involved in hiring, on-boarding, and managing restaurant talent, and Zuus, Sling, Deputy, and Hot Schedules are among the many companies offering scheduling and other talent management solutions using cloud-based technologies. The humans in the Hot Schedules booth were especially cordial, offering me a smile, a demo of their operations management system Clarifi and a seat on a couch, proving that kind people are still important in our tech-centric world.
- Penny the robot server whizzed around the show floor with food and drinks on its “head.” According to Bear Robotics, Penny’s “parents,” tips were actually up 18% during a beta test, due to speed and accuracy of service.
- Cubbies are being introduced for fast food pick-up. Apex has developed a high-tech take on the old fashioned automat. Order from your phone and pick up your food from an assigned box. Eatsa has also entered that space, with restaurants designed exclusively for cubbie dining.
- Feeding a crowd or want to serve crowds? EZ Cater now makes that process as easy as ordering an Uber or Lyft. (Speaking of which, Uber Eats had a huge booth and was offering $5 off coupons)
- POS could just as easily stand for “Plenty O’ Salespeople” as it does “Point of Sale.” Restaurants have realized that the systems they invest in are critical to monitoring and tracking their operations. At least 50 companies popped up when I searched for POS on the show app. Smart buyers are selecting their system based on quality of service, functionalities, and cost, and smart salespeople and brands were attracting guest to their booths with friendly and accessible presentations. Toast also has a great blog that gives restaurant operators ideas on how to manage better.
- Data is an Essential Ingredient. Restaurant operators — multi-location or mom-and-pop — all need to understand what’s inside their performance. Companies like Marketing Vitals provide analytics at the location, server, and customer level — helping owners develop the most effective menus and marketing programs. Restaurant 365 and Fourth offer integrated back office solutions. As in many other industries, integration seems to be the challenge, as business owners want to deal with fewer companies that can provide them with more functionalities and insights. And the new world of restaurants will contain more artificial intelligence and fewer artificial ingredients. GoParrot enhances the ordering experience by using customer data to make recommendations and, just as I can buzz through the airport with Clear, I will soon be able to get fast food faster with PopIQ facial recognition technology. The Cali Group is ahead of the food service curve and even owns their own restaurant, in which they can test new concepts.
- In with the New…Back with the Old. Despite the tech boom in the food world, some products and traditions have withstood the test of time. H&H Bagels (a staple of my New York City youth and site of a Seinfeld episode) are still rising. Despite the role of robots in food service, having a frozen treat handed to you by a human will usually evoke delight. The wonderful booth guys at Gelato Fiasco exemplified old fashioned customer service.
Sorry, bots…until you know how to smile, you won’t be replacing all the human servers any time soon!
P.S. A special shout-out to these other memorable companies:
- Sparkling Ice, who quenched my thirst with their new ginger lime flavor and Icee, a product delivering brain freeze since 1958.
- Earnest Eats protein-packed oatmeal, which will be a new addition to my healthy breakfast line-up, especially as I burn off the calories from the show.
- Babylon Micro-Farms makes hydroponic kitchen appliances, allowing chefs to grow their own produce.
- Foodie Booster, a space-saving and contemporary-looking take on the restaurant high chair.
- ClearBags, who generously allowed me to take many little colorful plastic bags from their booth so I could organize business cards and write this post.