NRAshow

The National Restaurant Association’s annual trade show has come and gone. But what remains are a handful of equipment and supplies related trends that will continue to shape the foodservice industry for the foreseeable future. Here are four that caught my eye.

Ventless equipment remains hot.

Ventless equipment continues to draw the attention of foodservice operators and designers alike, and with good reason. In the case of cooking equipment, ventless technology allows operators to bring customers closer to the action, which dovetails nicely with consumers’ desire for greater transparency. And ventless technology also gives operators more future flexibility in this era of ever-changing menus. In the event an operator’s menu or service style should shift, it’s easier to move or replace a piece of equipment that can function without a vent.

Plant-based products continue to blossom beyond the menu.

With consumers’ interest in consuming a more plant-centric diet seemingly at an all-time high, it only makes sense that food products that support this trend remain a hot topic. Plant-based products remain an equally hot topic in the equipment and supplies world. For example, the way operators cook and hold menu items such as veggie burgers will need to take into account the unique composition of these products so as to not compromise flavor and more. For their part, equipment manufacturers are starting to take notice of these plant-based food products and are doing a better job of understanding and articulating how their products can support these menu items.

But the talk of plant-based products goes well beyond what’s on the menu and includes supply items. There’s no shortage of vendors that now offer plant-based cups, straws, packaging and more. While these types of products have been around for a long time, what’s notable is how durable they have become. For example, when they first hit the market paper straws were not sturdy enough to stand up to thicker menu items like milkshakes and smoothies. That’s no longer the case. Same applies to packaging. There’s some very sturdy packaging options on the market that are microwavable and can hold up to the rigors of foodservice.

Automation may eventually address some labor issues, but the transition won’t be an easy one and it may take different forms.

For various, well-documented reasons, labor costs remain top of mind for just about every foodservice operator. And the industry continues to wonder when automation, namely robots, will help relieve labor pressures. The good news is that there’s no shortage of companies developing robotic solutions, but the foodservice operators implementing such solutions seem to be the exception rather than the norm.

There’s a variety of reasons for that. First, operators do love technology and, according to various studies commissioned by the National Restaurant Association, they see benefits in implementing various solutions. It’s just that those technology-based solutions have less to do with robots and more to do with how foodservice operations interact with their customers and help offset flat or declining foot traffic. As a result, operators’ attention remains on app and kiosk ordering, third-party delivery and other forms of technology. As a whole, the industry has yet to turn its attention to back-of-the-house solutions that such as robots.

That day will come one, though. And when evaluating those decisions, operators will need to do a deep dive to ensure they are not simply reducing labor costs while increasing the costs related to maintaining and fixing these solutions, as Rippe Associates Christine Guyott so aptly pointed out during our fireside chat in the Kitchen Innovations Showroom at the NRA Show.

In the nearer term, there’s a great opportunity for products that automate certain processes and assist with portion control. Examples include the salad robot that was on display at the show again this year as well as a fryer that cooks individual portions of certain menu items. Products like these offer operators tremendous benefits in terms of smart labor usage, food quality and even consistency. Those are less complicated factors that should resonate with operators quicker and could serve as a gateway to wider spread implantation of other forms of automation.

Factories fill in their gaps.

It’s no secret that consolidation continues to change the face of the foodservice equipment and supplies industry. What was notable this time around, though, was the more integrated approach factories were taking in how they displayed their products. Instead of having individual slots for each product lines, I saw more factories showing how all these products continued to mesh together. One multiline manufacturer grouped its products by type of foodservice operation so those visiting their booth could see how the factory’s various lines worked together. Many factories have discussed being an enterprise solution but what I saw overall at the show was the most tangible manifestation of this to date. This gives the operators more to think about and can position the factories and their supply networks as more dynamic resources.