Trends in restaurant: On the menu for 2014

Posted by Brett Carrey on May 27, 2014

Sarah Larsen, senior vice president and general manager at Mitchell Communications Group, and I recently attended the National Restaurant Association Annual Restaurant Show in Chicago in search of new trends, brands and potential opportunities. Featuring more than 1,800 exhibitors, ranging from food brands and trade associations to kitchenware manufactures and uniform designers, there was a lot to see – and even more to taste.

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We tried to cover as much ground as possible, but the McCormick Place Convention Center is so massive we may have missed a thing or two. But the show was definitely eye opening in terms of what’s new and coming to market. We’re compiling our notes and lists to help with our future efforts but, in the interim, I wanted to share a couple of quick highlights we observed. Several of these have already been covered in various trade media, but in case you missed it:

Gluten free: Ranging from sauces, pastas, breads and pizzas, snacks and desserts, many brands prominently displayed that their products did not contain wheat protein. Without wanting to sacrifice taste, many brands are finding unique flavor options (e.g., chili, oregano and garlic) to avoid being seen as “plain” or “boring.” And gluten free isn’t just reserved for the store shelf. Many restaurants are designing and offering gluten-free menus as a means of attracting new and retaining existing customers. It’s estimated that nearly 30 percent of Americans are avoiding gluten.

Locally grown and sourced: The trend isn’t over – and it’s no longer solely about farm to table, as restaurants and packaged goods brands are sharing specific details about where and who they’re getting their ingredients from. Meats, seafood and produce providers all highlighted their vendor relationships to draw ethical and sustainable connections with their customers. Hyper-local sourcing (e.g., restaurant gardens) was also noticeable across some of the smaller brands.

Children’s nutrition: For parents seeking smarter nutritional choices for their children, the key is getting kids to adopt healthy eating habits early in life. Many kids’ foods touted ingredients such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables, while preparations like oven-baked throughout the show. Restaurants are also providing healthier and more flavorful menu options for children, including McDonald’s which recently announced it’s adding Go-Gurt, low-fat yogurt in Happy Meals as an alternative to French fries.

Tea: Ranging from small independent manufacturers to large corporate distributors, teas were displayed on every aisle we turned. And not just “traditional” teas. There were iced teas and hot teas. Green tea, black tea and flavored tea. Tea was showcased as a beverage and also as an ingredient, including powders (for smoothies) and even tea salt. Naturally, the health benefit of tea was also a focus.

But it wasn’t all just about the food. A couple other notable themes were:

  • Disposables (plates, dishes, napkins, etc.) that are recyclable and compostable.
  • Technology ranging from coupon redemption (e.g., Groupon Gnome) to employee hiring to tablet menu ordering.
  • Beer and the ability for restaurants to brew their own custom beers.
  • Sanitation to ensure healthy environments for customers and workers alike.
  • The Power of Social Media Reviews

More “food for thought” to come. But if anyone has a favorite food trend to watch, please share with us in the comments below or tweet your responses using the hashtag #mcgblog.