Food and Marketing Trends from the 2016 NRA Show

Supporting causes, building content, and gyro tacos were all hot topics at 2016 NRA Show. As the largest gathering for the restaurant, food service, and hospitality industries, the National Restaurant Association’s International Foodservice Show is a great place to network with fellow professionals, learn from the experts, and discover new industry trends. We’ve put together a behind-the-scenes view of a day at the 2016 NRA Show in Chicago through the eyes of a first-timer and her partner. 

9:00 AM—Arrive

After picking up badges and downloading the NRA Show 2016 app to our phones, we started planning out our day with vendors, educational sessions and demonstrations over coffee at Starbucks. Sure, there are plenty of samples inside of the show, but we decided to get our caffeine fix before starting the adventure. Making your way around McCormick Place can take awhile, so our biggest tip is to give yourself plenty of time.

10:00 AM—Cooking demo: Rick Bayless & local specialties

Rick Bayless, the award-winning restaurateur who specializes in modern Mexican cuisine, opened the show. He began the demo by making one of his signature sauces, green chili adobo. Highlighting the versatility of the sauce, he then used it as a base component and added fresh and roasted ingredients to transform it into four different dishes. He emphasized keeping easy-to-use ingredients in the pantry and making use of local specialty products and seasonal ingredients.

After his demonstration, Bayless signed cookbooks. We, of course, had to stay to get a dedication in his newest cookbook, More Mexican Everyday.

11:30 AM—Educational Session: Small Budgets, Big Ideas - Marketing Like a Pro

We rushed over to the fourth floor of the South Building where the educational sessions were held. We barely made it in—this session was one of the most popular.

Meg Edgett, the CEO of Get Perception and former research consultant for Taco Bell, led a panel of three industry professionals: Jack Civa, Director of Marketing for Taco Cabana; Kaffee Hopkins, Director of Brand Marketing for Sterling Hospitality; and Monique Yeager, Chief Marketing Officer for Tijuana Flats. The session was geared mainly towards restaurants with 1 to 20 units. The topics ranged from dealing with negative Yelp reviews to making your brand relevant to Millennials and Generation Z. A few panelists recommended discounting or providing consumers with coupons. (At Saltshaker, we advise using coupons carefully in your strategy, as they can diminish your brand value and train consumers to wait for a discount.) Some valuable suggestions from this session included community partnerships and cause-related marketing, conducting focus groups with loyal customers, and only distributing emails one to two times per month.

12:45 PM—Time for Trendspotting!

Sampling our way through the aisles and aisles of vendors, we were able to get a better feel for what’s happening in the food industry. Some overarching trends included:

Mediterranean flavors - Booth after booth highlighted flat breads, gyro meats, olive tapenade, tzatziki sauce and baklava. Trying to adhere to different tastes, some companies showcased different uses for the meat, from a banh-mi inspired gyro to al pastor gyro tacos. Vendors also highlighted their use of non-GMO ingredients and gluten-free certifications to stand out from their competitors.

Sous vide cooking - This European cooking technique is slowly making its way to the American kitchen. Companies at the show featured sous vide machines and equipment, as well as sous vide meat options for retail organizations and home cooks. (Even Food & Wine featured the technique in an article, “How to Cook Sous Vide at Home.”) A few unique items shown included pork belly and cod fish.

Spices - Whether it’s harissa (a North African chili paste) or a tandoor wet rub, spice is in. We walked by booths promoting hot spice mixes, chili sauces, spicy Bloody Mary mixes and chopped hatch chiles. Hot flavors are definitely in style: just last month Food52 released a “Chili Paste Primer” to provide more insight into the world outside of sriracha.

2:00 PM—TechTalk: Social Media 101

Venturing over to the Tech Pavilion, we listened to a TechTalk led by Tess Vismale of iSocialExecution Inc. In a casual setting, the session provided insights such as a basic guide to social media tools, the ins and outs of using analytical platforms, and how to interact with professionals and customers through social media. Vismale interacted digitally with members of the audience to display interactions in real time. She is a big believer in content marketing, and highlighted LinkedIn and Medium as a great place to repost blog posts or link to new articles on your company’s website. Her insights emphasized digital and content marketing, and showed the session attendees the value of using these means to promote your business.

2:30 PM—Sampling on the Show Floor

Continuing to explore the vendors on the floor, we ate samples until we were full—in addition to the trendy foods mentioned above, we ate bacon and sipped some organic sugar cane sodas.

4:00 PM—Heading to the Hotel

After being on our feet for almost eight hours, not only did we enjoy meeting industry professionals from around the world and learning about new food trends and concepts, we also discovered we had walked 12,000 steps (approximately six miles) in one day!