If there was ever any doubt about the power that the millennial generation has over dining trends, the 2017 National Restaurant Association (NRA) Show put those to rest.
In food and beverages, kitchen innovations, and technology, the preferences of millennials—and even Generation Z, or those born between 1996 and 2010—have taken hold. This year’s show floor displayed a flood of customizable and natural food items and ingredients, as well as an expansion of interactive and automated equipment with controls resembling computer tablets and smartphones.
“It’s a whole change in how this generation thinks and works,” says Mary Pat Heftman, the NRA’s executive vice president of convention and strategic alliances. “It aligns with the way they’ve lived and learned.”
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Interest in craft culinary items, fueled by younger diners’ continuing demands for new and interesting flavors, continues to grow, she adds. This has been a trend in beverages for years and has expanded into other menu areas.
In fact, four craft condiments—Sriracha ketchup (Red Gold’s Huy Fong Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce Ketchup), chili-infused honey (Mike’s Hot Honey), beer-influenced Worcestershire sauce (Colonel Pabst Worcestershire Sauce), and aquafaba-based mayonnaise (Sir Kensington’s Fabanaise)—were among the Food and Beverage Innovation (FABI) Award recipients featured at this year’s show.
“I think the overall trend this year is creativity,” says Christopher Koetke, vice president of Kendall College’s School of Culinary Arts and a FABI Award judge. There were three times as many FABI entries as in 2016, and the winners “really stood out,” Koetke says.
Specialty and craft-made beverages continue to trend upward, with new flavors and styles of sodas, teas, flavored waters, and more on display at the NRA Show. Some drinks also play on other trends, like organic ingredients, natural flavors, ethnic influences, and lower calories.
Among interesting beverages at this year’s show were options from both large companies, such as Coca-Cola’s Barrilitos line of agua frescas and PepsiCo’s craft Stubborn Soda line, as well as smaller ones, such as Sipp Eco Beverage Co.’s sparkling organic drinks lightly sweetened with agave.
Milwaukee-based Rishi Tea features several trends in a line of kegged craft-brewed tea that combines organic teas and botanicals with micro-brewing and cold-brewing techniques. The fizzy tea has no alcohol, sugar, or artificial colors or preservatives.
Demand by younger diners—and increasingly by their older counterparts—for cleaner, natural food could be seen in the show’s growing Organic and Natural Pavilion, although these attributes were echoed by many exhibitors across the trade floor. The trend of gluten-free and other specialty diets, including vegetarian and vegan offerings, is not new but continues to be met with a number of improved items.
While innovation has always played a role in making the back of the house more efficient and cost-effective, manufacturers are also catering to younger folks by creating equipment that allows easier customization and employee use.
For example, Blendtec featured a system that blends a drink in the same cup in which it is served, and Welbilt showcased its Garland-brand two-sided Xpress Grill with a tablet-like touch screen to control cooking. Equipment manufacturer Franke showed off a virtual reality system and headset that allows users to do anything from design a kitchen to walk through training.
Technology is also used increasingly for data collection through point of sale, social media, loyalty programs, and more. The eventual goal is to aggravate information into large data sets, or big data, to help operators know their customers by more than their names, social media activities, ordering histories, or lifestyles, said Evan Eakin, managing director of Green Leaf Business Solutions, speaking at an education session. “It’s all those things,” he said of what businesses should learn about their customer or client base.