Tastes and Trends From the 2012 NRA Show

Technology, desserts, alternative beverages and specialty diet products took centre stage at NRA Show 2012, held in Chicago in May.

Hosted by the National Restaurant Association, the NRA Show gives attendees a glimpse into future trends in US and international foodservice. This year, many of the major trends from 2010 continued, including a focus on technology and specialty diet products, but a number of new trends also emerged, including an emphasis on alternative beverages, such as smoothies, teas and juices, and a focus on providing healthier children’s meals. Below, Euromonitor International takes a look at some of the most predominant trends, sure to trickle down into US foodservice in the second half of 2012.

Technology can improve every part of the dining experience

Technology had an even larger presence at the show this year, as exhibitors showcased tablet-based software, mobile apps, and social media platforms designed to improve every possible aspect of foodservice. Among the featured in-house operational systems were products including iPad apps designed to organize hostess stands and track customer traffic through the store, those that track billing and inventory and others made to track orders as they moved from dining room to kitchen and back again. In some extreme cases, these products are even made to take the place of restaurant wait-staff, such as one tablet-based app that allowed customers to place their orders directly from their table. In an added bonus, diners were free to play with the tablet at their table while waiting for their food, lending an entertainment-based value addition to a restaurant’s competitive positioning.

These kinds of products are especially timely for restaurant operators, as one of the major recent trends in US foodservice is improvements to the dining experience in all restaurant categories, from fast food to full-service. As consumers begin spending again, competition for those dollars is at an all-time high, and customers are looking for the highest quality dining experience their money can buy. This kind of in-house technology can improve service by shortening wait times, increasing efficiency and simplifying the payment process, all ways to keep consumers happy in this tough competitive environment. Those systems that can take the place of staff also help keep labour costs low, improving margins without raising prices.

In another major technology category, many exhibitors offered creative new ways for brands to market themselves with the use of social media and internet-enabled devices. While foodservice industry-specific social media is nothing new, with the explosion in popularity in recent years of sites like Yelp, Foodspotting and GrubHub, the show featured some innovative new takes on restaurant apps. The most interesting of the bunch involved translating a social media presence into actual sales. ChowNow, for example, showcased turnkey social media-based solutions for restaurants, allowing even independent outlets to offer a complete suite of online ordering applications. The product allows restaurants to take orders directly from Facebook, iPads, iPhones, Androids or the restaurant’s own website, driving sales across multiple channels.

Desserts appeal to every consumer, from health-minded to those looking to indulge

Faced with growing frugality fatigue after three years of limiting foodservice purchases, many US consumers sought ways to treat themselves in relatively inexpensive ways. This led to an increase in popularity of snack-size items, like small pastries and wraps, but also of desserts and other small treats. If the show is any indication, these items will continue increasing in popularity over the short-term.

While miniature desserts were a big trend in foodservice last year, this emphasis on smaller, lower-calorie treats seems to have abated somewhat. The focus on portion size remained, however, in the form of single-serving treats designed to be plated individually, rather than cut from a larger cake or pie. These desserts are growing in popularity among full-service restaurants as operators look for ways to improve service and keep down costs by minimising food waste. They also appeal to current consumer preferences, as small, artfully-plated desserts feel indulgent without any added cost. In addition, each customer is free to choose their own dessert, an added benefit that feels luxurious.

Frozen desserts and snacks will also extend their reign well into 2012, with frozen yoghurt, gelato, blended espresso drinks, smoothies and other blended beverages continue to rise in popularity. These items typically sell at lower price-points than plated desserts, yet carry high margins, making them mutually appealing for consumers and operators alike. Many iterations are also seen as healthier alternatives to other treats, especially those varieties, like Greek frozen yoghurt and real fruit smoothies, positioned specifically to target those concerned with health and wellness.

Alternative beverages drive sales and traffic in all categories

Alternative beverages also cater to the growing health and wellness demand in the US, including tea-based drinks (especially green tea), coconut water, kefir, super-fruit blends, and other non-carbonated beverages. While many of these products are designed to be sold in retail rather than foodservice environments, they speak to the growing popularity of specialty beverages in foodservice as well. Many operators had success driving incremental sales with beverages in 2011, including McDonald’s’ growing beverage platform, which includes real-fruit smoothies and frozen lemonade. Jamba Juice also added coconut water-based drinks to its menus in May, 2011, and full-service player Hard Rock Café added a line of healthier cocktails during the year, including such ingredients as coconut water, blueberries and acai.

These kinds of beverages are ideal for driving traffic and value during the continuing recovery, as they appeal to both ends of the consumer spectrum. Those consumers who are growing less concerned with restaurant checks see healthy beverages as a way to try new flavours and add interest to their meal, whereas those still on a budget can use specialty beverages as a low-cost entry point back into foodservice. As such, the popularity of these items will continue to grow through the end of 2012, gaining strength as major operators continue to innovate in this area.

Custom coffee defines a new level of “premium”

While Starbucks famously brought premium coffee to the masses in the ’90s, trends since then have turned coffee into a must-have menu item for operators at all price-points. Major operators in fast food, for example, a category that had minimal participation in the coffee market just a few years ago, have almost uniformly added new or improved coffee platforms to menus within the last year. Some have partnered with existing brands, such as Burger King’s launch of Seattle’s Best Coffee with its new breakfast menu in late 2010, while others have created their own high-end lines, such as Wendy’s new high-end Redhead Roasters menu.

As evidenced by the many exhibitors at the show, coffee is now trending toward even more premium positioning, with new, customisable flavours and gourmet brewing methods designed to further improve the coffee-drinking experience. Pour-over coffee, a time-consuming technique in which coffee is hand-brewed by baristas, made its first significant appearance at the show, and the offering has already become available through some independent specialist coffee shops. Even Starbucks now offers the pour-over technique in some stores at off-peak times, suggesting the trend is rapidly entering the mainstream. With mounting competition in coffee and espresso-based beverages from the fast food category, this trend is expected to continue as specialist coffee shops seek ways to further differentiate their offerings.

Specialty diet products foster mass and niche appeal

Also making a strong showing among exhibitors were the kind of specialty diet products that began gaining mainstream popularity in the US last year. Featured products included gluten-free breads, cookies, pizza crusts and wraps; vegan meat substitutes; dairy-free cheeses and frozen desserts; and organic products of all types. The advantages of these products for restaurant operators are three-fold: First, they allow restaurant menus to appeal to the widest possible customer base, including those consumers who have food allergies or special dietary preferences. Second, they draw those consumers who are looking to make healthier food choices, as many of these products are perceived as being inherently healthier than their mainstream counterparts. Finally, the presence on restaurant menus of phrases like “gluten-free” and “vegan” serve as healthy buzz-words, signifying to consumers that a restaurant is conscious of the healthfulness and quality of their offerings. In this way, the mere presence of these items on menus help restaurants achieve healthier brand positioning, lending them a competitive edge.

In a newer iteration of the healthy food trend, the show also featured a pavilion dedicated to healthier fare for kids’ menus. Due to current legislation in some major cities and impending legislation in others, many fast food operators have been working to add healthier foods to kids’ meals in recent years. Strategies have included adding healthier options like apples instead of fries, substituting milk or juice for sugary soft drinks, and removing the toys that are often included with kids’ meal purchases. While other categories of foodservice haven’t seen the same level of kids’ menu scrutiny as fast food, they’ve still taken steps to provide healthier fare as childhood obesity concerns continue to rise. Olive Garden and Red Lobster, for example, both pledged to include fruit or vegetable sides and milk with all children’s meals starting in September, 2011; kids menu staples like fries and soda, on the other hand, won’t be offered unless specifically requested.

While the healthy food trend has evolved considerably in the US in recent years, it has shown no sign of slowing in strength or scope. Items that appeal to health and wellness-minded consumers, as well as help to position restaurants as healthier and of higher-quality than their competitors, will continue to be integral to foodservice success through the end of 2012.