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Restaurant Show
Essendorfer All photos by Bret Thorn
Essendorfer's booth featured Genussschmelzerei — assorted deeply flavored spreads, including one with pumpkin seed oil and another with seven kinds of onion and garlic.

Kruse/Thorn: Trend spotting at the NRA Show

In a monthly series, menu trend analyst Nancy Kruse and NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn debate current trends in the restaurant industry. For this installment, they discuss trends at the recent NRA Show.

Kruse Company president Nancy Kruse says the recent NRA Show offered a plethora of food and drink trends.

It was a typical Saturday at the NRA Show, Bret.  

At noon, I was inspecting some lovely porcelain dinnerware from Bangladesh. At 12:10, I was chomping on some tasty pili nuts from the Philippines. And around 12:30, I was swinging by the Grizzly Smokehouse, which, despite its somewhat misleading name, actually offers excellent, cold-smoked salmon from Quebec.

After only a couple of hours on the show floor, I was dangerously close to overload, and, faced with a staggering abundance of the new and the cool, I decided to focus my attention on the NRA’s FABI Awards winners. These brands are billed as offering incredible edibles, but, more than that, they are typically reliable indicators of both the state of the plate today and the shape of things to come tomorrow. The FABI class of 2017 didn’t disappoint on either score.

The craze for small-batching and handcrafting has spilled over from the beer business to the FABI food side, where it’s being applied to everything from cookies to condiments. A great example of the latter is Colonel Pabst Worcestershire Sauce made with all-malt Milwaukee lager. I get a kick out of the fact that it’s named for the very same brewer who put the P in PBR, an old-line beer that has enjoyed success among Millennial hipsters.

I also liked the luxurious, super indulgent Butter Tart from the storied Eli’s Cheesecake Company that is handmade in small batches using a classic, all-butter pâte sucrée crust. And I sipped Rishi Tea’s Craft Brew, which promises to disrupt the draft beverage category by combining the hydrating quality of coconut water, the buzz of cold-brew coffee and the healthful appeal of kombucha. And, like its crafty alcoholic counterparts, it’s served in the requisite keg.

While the gluten-free bandwagon keeps rolling on with nifty new examples like Franz Bakery’s Brazi Bites, an appealing take on Brazilian pão de queijo, or cheese bread, emphasis is clearly shifting to clean, free-from products, like Sweet Street’s smartly named Manifesto line of cookies and bars that are handcrafted from sustainable ingredients without high-fructose corn syrup or GMOs. Ace Bakery’s Baguette Bagel boasts just four simple, non-GMO ingredients, and Freshly Crafted Blood Orange Juice from Natalie’s Orchid Island Juice Company covers all the bases with its minimally processed, small-batch quaff.

Speaking of better beverages, the two major cola brands are among this year’s FABI winners. Looking to shore up lagging soft-drink sales, the Coca-Cola Company was pouring its Barrilitos Aguas Frescas, Mexican fruit-based beverages in flavors like tamarind and horchata, while Pepsico Foodservice was dispensing Stubborn Soda, a premium product in unexpected flavors like black cherry with tarragon, minus any artificial flavors, sweeteners or high-fructose corn syrup.

As you know, Bret, beverages have become a bit of a flashpoint recently, as Panera Bread announced that it will bring transparency to the cold-drink category by labeling the sugar and calorie content on its self-serve stations and by introducing its own proprietary line of better beverages. At the same time, Chipotle has taken its lumps from critics who decry its continued use of conventional soft drinks on its otherwise cleaner-than-thou menu. I think we need to stay tuned for further developments here.

What strikes me as the biggest and most exciting innovation represented by this year’s FABI winners is the emergence of a distinctly contemporary approach to speed-scratch. You’ll recall that the concept of speed-scratch was born long ago, in the mists of the 20th century, to describe ingredients that provided both time and labor savings without sacrificing scratch-made quality. A number of notable chefs, like Louisiana’s John Folse, endorsed the use of speed-scratch short-cuts like soup-and-sauce bases that unchained chefs from their steaming stockpots and freed them to use their creative energies elsewhere.

Hopped ciders are perfect for beer lovers avoiding gluten.

FABI winners this year applied the speed-scratch principle to the global pantry, cooking up convenient ethnic specialties like powdered, ready-to-use truffle zest from Sabatino and premade harissa and slow-roasted tomato sofrito from Sevillo Fine Foods.

Of course, innovation isn’t relegated solely to the foodstuffs on display. Based on my unofficial survey of non-food exhibitors, it appears that we’re entering the age of the robot. I was especially struck by one robotic sushi machine, which claimed to grind out sushi with “the consistency of a sushi master,” although I felt it lacked a little something in personality and panache. It was an interesting contrast: All of the equipment innovation geared toward space-age speed and precision seemed at odds with the hands-on, small-batch, just-like-grandma-made promises of many food exhibitors.

Every year, showrunners manage to push the envelope further in terms of audience engagement. The terrific Foodamental Studio, manned by the intrepid and unflappable staff from Chicago’s Kendall College, continues to draw turn-away crowds with its hands-on instruction on everything from basic knife skills to how to make kinilaw, Filipino-style ceviche. The new Innovation Hub offered 30-minute Tech Talks on hot-button technology issues, and its savvy Social Media Bar provided one-on-one consultation with an actual social-media expert, which is sort of like what I get from my 10-year-old nephew, but without the bribery and cajoling. 

My overall takeaway was that this was a humdinger NRA Show, one of the biggest and best in memory. But I did miss one thing: I never crossed paths with you, Bret, to compare notes and to share tips. Since I was deprived of your insights in person, I’m looking forward to reading them.

Of note: meat substitutes, Indian cuisine, cold brew coffee

NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn responds to Kruse Company president Nancy Kruse’s take on trends at the NRA Show.

Nancy, that Sabatino truffle zest is on my kitchen counter at this very moment.

Dutch sandwich cookies called stroopwafels are meant to be placed on top of a coffee cup to warm the filling.

As you may know, I’m a judge for the FABI Awards, and I got an early look at all of those goodies. So I spent my time at the NRA Show patrolling for other new foods.

I was struck by how good some of the products were in categories that used to be uninspiring. I’m thinking in particular of plant-based substitutes for meat and cheese, which I normally find completely unpalatable. But some of these new items have really come a long way. I was already aware of Beyond Meat’s new substitute for hamburger patties because it was submitted for a FABI Award. It won because it tasted and felt remarkably like meat, if not specifically beef.

But I was also struck by Daiya’s cheese substitute, made with tapioca starch and pea protein, which was quite serviceable, as was Vegetarian Plus’ soy-based jerky.

I was less surprised to see food from the Philippines, which is all the rage among trend spotters. I’m still not convinced that it will be the next big cuisine, but I did enjoy the tinolo, a ginger-chicken soup that Mama Sita’s was serving when I stopped by their booth.

As you know, I’m more confident that Indian food will continue its march into the mainstream, helped by products like the turmeric-spiced puffed lentils from The Chaat Company, which was spooned over yogurt seasoned with coconut, cardamom, ginger and cayenne.

I was also struck by how much gyro was on the show floor. Vertical rotating skewers of stacked chicken, beef, lamb and pork seemed to be everywhere, and KronoBroil was dreaming up new uses for it with things like a gyro dip, made by mixing chopped rotisserie meat with feta, cream cheese, green onion, roasted red pepper and Monterey Jack cheese — mighty tasty on pretty much any cracker.

And there were a bunch of Latin beverages. You mentioned Coke’s Barrilitos and Pepsi’s Stubborn Soda, the latter of which had a Latin orange hibiscus flavor. But there were many other tamarind- and guava-flavored beverages as well.

Daiya's cheese substitute is made from tapioca starch and pea protein.

In the high-tech category, I enjoyed pasta that Barilla made with a 3-D printer, which can make complex spirals, baskets and other shapes that would be impractical by other means. There’s only one such pasta printer in existence, in Italy, and it only prints nine pieces of pasta in two minutes, so I don’t think we’ll be seeing it at Olive Garden any time soon. But it certainly has possibilities for high-end special occasions.

In beverages, cold brew coffee — plain or infused with nitrogen — was all over the place, and at Royal Cup’s booth I was told that demand was high for a decaffeinated version. I don’t think that exists yet, and the exhibitors weren’t sure how it would be made, but there seems to be a ready market for it if anyone figures it out.

At the BAR Show, I sampled a couple of hopped ciders — tart apple drinks finished with hops that were sort of a cross between traditional cider and beer. They seemed perfect for beer lovers who are avoiding gluten, or for anyone looking for the newest sensations in beverage alcohol.

As you know, Nancy, a growing number of consumers are looking to try new foods, and the NRA Show provided plenty of options, from the Genussschmelzerei at Essendorfer’s booth — assorted deeply flavored spreads, including one with pumpkin seed oil and another with seven kinds of onion and garlic — to a Dutch sandwich cookie called the stroopwafel that I sampled at a couple of different booths. Stuffed with melting fillings such as caramel, they’re meant to be placed on top of a coffee cup to warm the filling, giving eaters a gooey treat.

I’m sorry that our paths didn’t cross at the show this year, Nancy, but that just gives us all the more catching up to do this fall at MUFSO.

Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta and a regular contributor to Nation’s Restaurant News. E-mail her at [email protected].

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]

Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

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