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Top Takeaways from the National Restaurant Association Show

The McMillanDoolittle team recently attended the annual National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago to explore the latest developments in the food industry. Read on to discover our top five food and technology trends dominating this year’s show.  

  1. Vegan seafood is emerging as the latest trend in plant-based cuisine, offering fish-free alternatives to sushi, sashimi, crab cakes, shrimp, and more. While companies are promoting vegan seafood as an environmentally sustainable option, there are questions about its health benefits, particularly the absence of omega-3 fatty acids found in traditional seafood.
    two vegan seafood booths

    Exhibitors: Boldly and ALTist // Photo Credit: McMillanDoolittle

  2. Next-gen, zero-proof beverages continue to command attention. Major beverage brands and start-ups continue to shake up the alcohol industry by innovating with non-alcoholic seltzers, beers, spirits, and canned mocktails. Additionally, the THC and CBD-infused beverage category is expanding, offering consumers additional alcohol-free alternatives – aligned with recent research conducted by Heineken 0.0 found Gen Z’s alcohol consumption dropped by nearly 25% over the last 4 years.
    two beverage booths

    Exhibitors: Flora and White Claw // Photo Credit: McMillanDoolittle

  3. Supplies are responding to consumer cravings for bold, intricate flavors. In fact, the term “swicy” (sweet and spicy) has become new TikTok slang. Hot honey, gochujang sauce, and unique salsas are now kitchen staples and restaurant favorites. Chick-fil-A recently introduced the limited-time Honey Pepper Pimento Chicken Sandwich, and Shake Shack is featuring a sandwich with a spicy and sweet Gochujang glaze.
    a booth featuring sauce

    Exhibitor: Mike’s Hot Honey // Photo Credit: McMillanDoolittle

  4. GenAI-powered tools enhance creativity in the food service industry. We would be remiss not to mention that Artificial Intelligence was a hot topic throughout the conference. One prevalent use case was AI’s application in creating marketing materials, campaigns, and unique menu additions. In the example below, Avocados From Mexico introduced a “Glow Up Your Menu” AI tool that generates innovative menu items featuring avocados for restaurants nationwide. This AI tool assists restaurants in creatively incorporating avocados into their offerings, allowing them to introduce new dishes and strategically upcharge for avocado. More broadly, the food service industry is utilizing AI to enhance customer experience, improve operational efficiency, and adapt to changing customer preferences.
    a digital menu board

    Exhibitor: Avocados From Mexico // Photo Credit: McMillanDoolittle

  5. An influx of robotic solutions aims to address labor concerns. From automating cooking processes for foods such as stir fry, burgers, pizza, and beyond, there’s a clear demand for technology solutions that augment employee capabilities, particularly amidst ongoing labor shortages impacting the industry. However, as of 2024, the implementation of fully automated systems in food service remains relatively limited. Notable pioneers in the United States include CaliExpress by Flippy in California and Sweetgreen’s Infinite Kitchen in Illinois (Click here to explore a past blog covering the Infinite Kitchen concept).
    robotic cooking solutions

    Exhibitor: Robo Cook // Photo Credit: McMillanDoolittle

To further delve into food service and retail themes of 2024, we invite you to contact usAdditionally, check out our McMillanDoolittle Instagram stories over the next week for highlights of innovative exhibitors that embody this year’s food service trends.   

Maddie McBride

Maddie is an analyst on the consumer insights and innovation team at McMillanDoolittle, supporting quantitative and qualitative primary research methodologies, business analysis, strategic planning, and new concept, format and product development. She brings recent expertise in human-centered design, creative workshop facilitation, and statistical analysis to her project work. Maddie received her BA in Economics from the University of Notre Dame.

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