More than 74,000 restaurant and foodservice professionals and 2,140 exhibitors gathered in Chicago May 19-22 for the 88th annual National Restaurant Assn. (NRA) Restaurant-Hotel-Motel Show to check out innovative new products and trends and to mingle with celebrity chefs from all over the world.
According to a survey of more than 1,000 chiefs, conducted by the NRA, the hottest menu trends are bite-size desserts, organic and local produce, flatbread and bottled water. Cuisines at the top of the list include Asian appetizers, Mediterranean, Latin American, Pan-Asian, Brazilian/Argentinean, Thai, sushi and Cuban.
"The nation's 935,000 restaurants have long been the breeding ground for many of the world's best culinary artists," says William Anton, convention chairman. "America's fascination with all things food-related has opened new doors for these individuals to share their creativity and inspire chefs and home cooks everywhere."
At the show, one could rub elbows with Chefs Rick Bayless (Frontera Grill and Topolobampo), John Doherty (Waldorf-Astoria), Tom Douglas (five Seattle restaurants), Gale Gand (pastry guru at Tru), Thomas Keller (The French Laundry), Danny Meyer (Union Square Hospitality Group), Paul Prudhomme (K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen), Marcus Samuelsson (Townhouse Restaurant Group), Harry Shapiro and Peyton Young (Harry's Roadhouse), Rick Tramonto (Tru and Osteria di Tramonto) and Ming Tsai (Blue Ginger).
As well as Cat Cora (America's first female Iron Chef), Steve Raichlen (host of PBS's "Barbecue University"), Juan-Carlos Cruz (host of Food Network's "Calorie Commando"), Art Smith (formerly Oprah's chef) and Sally James (Australian author of 12 cookbooks). Many attendees flocked to cooking demonstrations by former White House Executive Chef Walter Scheib and watched the international teams competing at the American Culinary Classic. Chefs from the Research Chefs Assn. also were on hand with advice on new menu items.
Unlike other food shows, which are tightening their belts, NRA seems to expand every year. With 2007 projected sales of $537 billion, up 5 percent, the restaurant industry will garner 47.9 percent share of the food dollar and will dish up more than 70 billion meal and snack occasions.
One genuine news story was unveiled at the show: a joint venture between Chicago-based NutraSweet Co. and American Sugar Refining Co., parent of Domino sugar. Together they will develop and distribute a new line of sweeteners (their ingredients not specified) that will compete with Equal and Splenda.
At the show, trends appeared to be ethnic foods, organics, "green" environmentally friendly products and trans fat free oils, as well as products to ensure food safety.
Cadbury Schweppes featured bottled mojitos. Chef Bombay Inc. passed out samosas, tasty Indian pastries. Australian firms Outback Pride and Hoo Roo Foods offered a new line of Australian Harvest Bush Foods (created from desert limes, bush tomatoes and Tasmanian Mountain Pepperberries picked by indigenous Australians) and offered samples of barramundi (crusted with pepperberries and macadamias) and Wild Hibiscus Flowers in syrup in Champagne flutes. The bubbles cause the flowers, which are edible, to open. Bubbies Homemade Ice Cream and Desserts served Haupia, Okinawan sweet potato ice cream in a beautiful purple hue. Fresh Green Organic Garden sprouted a fascinating organic micro mix of arugula, mizuna, tendergreen, bull's blood, beet top, tatsoi and kohlrabi.
Hot new products
One thing that seemed to dominate this year's NRA Show was the abundance of flesh. Not necessarily the crowds, rather, the number of meat products. Meat is indeed still the center of the plate for most Americans. And not just meat, but well-seasoned meat-oriented items, such as barbecues and marinades, sauces and smokers.
Beverages also were flowing in great tidal waves, with the Coca Cola exhibit taking up one huge corner of the show floor to feature dozens of new products and acquisitions. (And this was just before the company announced its purchase of the success-story phenomenon, Vitaminwater.)
According to the NRA's 2007 Restaurant Industry Forecast, beverage trends include more bottled water, coffee, energy drinks and wine. Fair trade and organic coffees were on display everywhere. A unique coffee concept from Natfood SRL is Gin-co, containing ginseng extract. And a whopping 50 companies brewed up tea or products to make tea. Among them, Cooper Tea Co.'s Bazaa High Energy Tea containing 140mg of all-natural caffeine. Fully Loaded Tea rolled out superfruit tea with goji berries, seabuckthorn berries and lingonberries.
Australian company Madura Tea Estates introduced Green Tea and Papaya Leaf blend and showcased its line of kosher-certified black, green and herbal teas. They are free of tannic acid and suitable for people who have undergone gastrointestinal surgery. Australia's Brookfarm takes the macadamia (cholestrerol free and the richest source of monounsaturates) to new levels with its vacuum-packed Oven Roasted Macadamia Nuts with Sea Salt, Oven Roasted Macadamia with Kashmiri Chili and Sea Salt and Oven Roasted Macadamia with Bush Pepper Spice and Sea Salt.
Honest Tea debuted Honest Kids, with less than half the sugar of other popular kids pouch drinks, and a full days' supply of vitamin C and Orange Mango with Mangosteen and Pomegranate White Tea with Açaí for adults. Numi Organic Tea introduced Gen Mai Cha (toasted rice green tea). Sugart Group rolled out iTea, a single serve tea wand that works like a tea infuser. And you can sip for kids with the Tea District's Children's Tribute Citrus Green Tea. A percentage of the proceeds will go to the Children's Cancer Research Fund.
Coca-Cola Foodservice introduced Minute Maid Smoothies, frozen mixes in six flavors, which were very popular. PepsiCo, which inexplicably skipped the Food Marketing Institute Show two weeks earlier, had on display Tava Sparkling Beverage, Pepsi Wild Cherry, Ethos Water, Dole Sparklers, Quaker Muffin Bars, SoBe Life Water, Pepsi Jazz and Tostitos Chip and Dip. Barilla's Barilla Plus - omega-3 multigrain pasta in six shapes - is the first pasta to get approval by USDA as a meat alternative for schools (it contains 17g of protein, 360mg of ALA omega-3s and 7 grams of dietary fiber per serving) and it tastes great.
Vienna Beef served up Vienna Beef Pups, mini-hot dogs on mini-buns from Alpha Baking. Hopefully, these sliders will launch in the retail market. Vienna also served up some to-die-for hot Bistro Chili. Tribe Mediterranean Foods introduced organic hummus in four flavors: Roasted Garlic, Sweet Roasted Red Peppers and Cracked Chili Peppers. Cabana Cachaça LP and ABB Partners LLC introduced Brazil's Cabana Cachaça, the first double-distilled ultra premium cachaça in the U.S.
Also new to the U.S. is Van Tallinn, a strong liqueur from Estonia, from Matrics Importing. Cabot Creamery introduced Cabot Greek Style Yogurt (made with 10 percent butterfat). Chef David Burke rolled out the Flavor Spray Diet, including 36 flavors that are sprayed on any food, delivering flavor without the guilt or calories. Sweet sprays are good for diabetics and butter and bacon sprays for people cutting down on fat.
Diamond Foods Inc. introduced its spicy Emerald Barbeque Oven Roasted Peanuts, Emerald Chipotle Oven Roasted Peanuts and Emerald Wasabi Oven Roasted Peanuts. Greek Island Spice Inc. introduced Sonoma Harvest Chutney, bursting with figs, apricots, peaches, dates, raisins, cherries and pears steeped in chardonnay wine. J and J Snack Foods rolled out Sweet Doughlicious Soft Pretzel Nuggets. Australia's Lake Crystal Pure and Natural Salt is salt mined from a 5 million-year-old lake. Unilever Ice Cream introduced special edition Breyers Fried Ice Cream Tub, fried cinnamon caramel light ice cream swirled with honey caramel and cinnamon tostada pieces. And xroads Philippine Sea Salts launched Sugpo Asin, a naturally pink sea salt that derives its color from sugpo shrimp.
Loders Croklaan introduced its SansTrans Fry HD-50 Heavy Duty No Trans, Non Hydrogenated Liquid Frying Shortening, quite a mouthful. Mimic Crème, a non-dairy cream substitute made from cashews and almonds, was unveiled by Green Rabbit LLC. The Golden Peanut Co. provides no trans fat, cholesterol free refined peanut oil which has a high smoke point of 450°F, so it's ideal for frying. Studies show that people with allergies to peanuts do not have reactions to refined peanut oil because processing removes the protein which causes the allergy.
To help diners make healthier choices at more than 47,000 restaurant locations, HealthyDiningFinder.com is finding new users every day and Menus that Talk, from the company of the same name, is a new hand-held device that international diners can use to hear a restaurant's menu in their chosen language. The world is getting smaller all the time. Happily, NRA will be in Chicago again next year from May 17-20.