There are several growing trends that have joined the American culinary landscape in recent years, including the locavore movement, ethical eating, and food purity that ranges from organic ingredients to those free of GMOs, pesticides, and gluten.

In fact, they are all part of an even larger megatrend called “enlightened eating,” says Dave Sheluga, director of consumer insights for Ardent Mills, a Denver-based flour-milling and ingredient company that is hoping to take whole grains mainstream.

“This is a trend coming in from the coasts,” he says. The trend is typically being led by higher-educated, high-income consumers, with many of the categories seeing double-digit growth, he adds. “Will it get here to the heartland? Yes, but it will take time.”

Ardent Mills and many other companies that are closely tied to this megatrend are displaying their products and processes at this year’s National Restaurant Show in Chicago, which runs through Tuesday.

With one of the more unique booths at this year’s show—a former NASCAR tractor trailer turned into a Mobile Innovation Center with a fully functional bakery, culinary kitchen, and other features—Ardent Mills is demonstrating what’s next in grain innovation. The company is a joint venture combining the North American flour milling businesses of big food companies Cargill and ConAgra Foods, which each own 44 percent of the business, along with farm cooperative CHS, which holds a 12 percent stake. The venture has 40 mills across North America, three mixing facilities, and a small specialty bakery in Portland, Oregon.

While traditional white flour is still a big part of Ardent’s business, there has been more focus on increasing consumers’ intake of whole grains that offer more health benefits.

“The whole grain products really complement the white flour we do, and we do a lot of blends, where you can mix the whole wheat flour with the white flour,” says company chief executive Dan Dye.

One of Ardent Mills' products, Ultragrain, is a 100 percent whole-wheat flour that has the appearance and texture of traditional white flour. The company also has products like ultra-high fiber barley and ancient grains.

The Mobile Innovation Center is part of an effort to “mainstream whole grain.” It allows chefs, bakers, and restaurant operators to see how different types of flour, made from various grains, will perform in a regular kitchen or bakery.

“Chefs want to know, ‘Can I make it taste good?’ and ‘Will this bake in a consistent predicable manner?’ We can show them that,” Dye says.

There are hundreds of companies at the Show that fit into that enlightened eating category. There’s even a specific area, dubbed “Alternative Bitestyle,” that showcases products for special dietary needs.

Many of this year’s Food and Beverage Award winners were honored for innovations in what would be considered enlightened eating, and that includes Cheatin’ Wheat pancake mix and Dawn Food Products’ cookies and muffins, all gluten-free.

An Update on Finance

For the second year, the NRA hosted a Restaurant Finance Summit during the show, providing ideas for entrepreneurs looking to get the dough to grow.

Russ Bendel, chief executive of California-based Habit Burger, provided some insights into what investment firms are seeking when considering where to put their money and what operators can do to boost the value of their businesses.

Private equity firms are “looking for concepts that are proven,” which takes some risk out of the equation, he says. The restaurant company not only needs to have multiple units, but some of these must be outside its native region to demonstrate broad appeal. They also want the company’s founders and leaders to have “some skin in the game” in terms of taking an equity position, although the investment firm will own a strong majority of the business, Bendel says.

From the other side, the relationship with an equity partner “starts with their ability to write a check,” but there needs to be more, the fast-casual chain’s CEO says. That includes strategic and advisory assistance.

“At the end of the day, you’re going to be a married partner with these people for a long time,” Bendel says.

Belly Up to the Bar15

The alcoholic beverage business area of the show, dubbed Bar15, concluded its two-day run Monday. It featured various vendors of beer, wine, and spirits, as well as equipment for making better drinks. One company, SmartBrew, even displayed beer-making apparatus.

The state of Colorado, known as home to New Belgium Brewing and countless other breweries, had a large booth that promoted smaller craft suds and wine producers.

One, Redstone Meadery, was pouring its various carbonated and non-carbonated alcoholic beverages.

“This gives smaller companies a chance to tell our story,” says David Myers, founder of Redstone, which targets the craft beer market. “We do appeal to some wine drinkers, but craft beer followers tend to be more adventurous.”

And just in case anyone didn’t think that the quick-service restaurants can’t play a role in alcoholic beverages, consider this: A Hardy USA, a company based in Des Plaines, Illinois, is showing Cinnabon-branded cinnamon and horchata cream liquors that will be available in the fall.

Statistic of the day: 2,100. That’s the approximate number of exhibitor booths at this year’s show.

By Barney Wolf