The Food Channel crew has roamed the aisles of the National Restaurant Show, attended session after session, and talked with company after company checking out the food trends at the Show. We’ve tasted and tested and, in some cases, gone back for second tastings or to ask more questions. And, we’ve narrowed it down to our favorite “things seen at the Show.” So, if you weren’t able to attend, take a walk with us down the aisles as we bring you our Top Ten.
1. Groupon – It just has to be said: Groupon was a class act at the show. They had a large display area, too big to be called a booth, and they used it to show people exactly what Groupon does. With so many others in the “deal” space online, Groupon is smart to try to make its mark, especially in its home city of Chicago. Their trend setting presence was the tipping point that proved social media is dramatically impacting the restaurant world.
2. Some Cool Equipment – What else do you call the Coke Freestyle, or the collaboration of Yelp and Anheuser-Busch that created the Kegmate? The Coke Freestyle isn’t exactly new—it’s been talked about at least since 2008, but it’s now in full bloom, offering 125 flavor combinations in one vending machine. The trend-setting machine even has the ability to recognize you as a customer, through a computer chip in your cup. If you like that, you’ll love the Kegmate, which is essentially a beer keg with an iPad attached, giving you multiple technological features (some call it “your new bartender"). Trust me, you’ll understand when we walk you through it in the video to come.
3. Pizza Truck – It had to come. Food trucks actually built as food trucks, not just renovated delivery vans. The latest comes out of a catering company in Connecticut, and this model was literally finished just hours before heading to the Show. It offers “Pizza Napolitana made fresh at your event!” The food truck trend continues unabated, and this model takes our top honors for its innovation and sheer beauty. This particular truck is being marketed by The Pizza Truck Co., but we also saw enhancements in food trucks of every kind.
4. Tenerissimo – It's a cross between soft serve ice cream and a smoothie, and, paired with various liquids, it is our top food pick. We tried all four varieties at the show, all featuring this new product meant for foodservice (meaning you may be able to order a dessert made with it soon enough at a restaurant near you). Mango, coffee, espresso with mascarpone, and—the winner—a berry/grapefruit that was just perfect. It was a smooth frozen treat, layered with the tang of grapefruit, with a beautiful berry color, made by PreGel.
5. SmartCellar – They get kudos for the name, and for being right in the middle of the latest technology & food trend combination. This is a tech tool meant to facilitate the discussion between the restaurant customer and the sommelier. In other words, it’s your wine list on an Apple iPad notebook, complete with a way to ask questions of the wine steward. So, instead of getting a huge paper wine list, you get a digital notebook—and a fun way to encourage discussion about wines at the table. There were a lot of different uses of notebook technology on display at the Show, but we liked this one because it isn’t just technology for technology’s sake; SmartCellar has a purpose of educating and providing interaction in a non-threatening manner.
6. Get Back to Scratch – We like this one for two reasons: 1) It’s all about cooking; and, 2) their spokesman at the Show, Buddy Valastro, from TLC’s “The Cake Boss”, was simply charming. He won us over when he said, “I do this because of people like the mom who came up to me and said, ‘Thank you. Because of you, my 14-year-old daughter wanted a cake decorating kit for her birthday.’ There are a lot worse things a 14-year-old could be into, and it means a lot to me.” The Get Back to Scratch trend is just what it sounds like—baking from scratch, without using mixes. There is a contest for restaurants, too, and everyone can vote for their favorite from the signature items submitted.
7. Chile – The International section at the Show is always a big deal, but Chile pretty well stole the show this year with its exhibits and the energetic Carolina Ordonez (from the Chile Trade Commission) who identified the companies who are working hard to bring their products to the United States. We were intrigued by the wine in the can, and impressed by Chef Katherine Medel, who had us taste the turbot from Seafood Resources. There’s quite a story there, too, so stay tuned.
8. ProStart – There were some hard-working young people with a prime demonstration spot at the Show, and they had earned it. First, a big hats off to Janet Dukes, the Culinary Education teacher at Newport Harbor High School in Newport Beach, Calif., whose students took first place in the competition across both culinary and management. Students from the finalist schools showed off their skills and proved they have what it takes to work in this industry . . . and the smart restaurants will grab them up for jobs soon enough. ProStart is a program of the National Restaurant Association, and we commend them, too, for creating this type of opportunity in education.
9. “It’s About Time” Equipment – No, that’s not a company. Those are just the words we used when hearing about a couple of trend-setting innovations in equipment. First, the new Fire Deck Stone Hearth Ovens from WoodStone. Finally, a way to safely bring wood-fired heat to an indoor oven. Then, on a much smaller scale (and, yet, more likely to be seen by consumers), is the new oatmeal dispenser. We checked out the one made by Bunn called the Imix-3 Oatmeal Machine, which will come out in mid-July. You’ll see it in hotel lobbies and convenience stores, so look forward to the day when you don’t have to rip open the packet or measure your hot water. Given the rising interest in heart-healthy oatmeal, we are only surprised this didn’t come along sooner.
10. Edible Utensils – We had to throw in one just for fun, but it’s also one that people couldn’t stop talking about. We heard this from all over: “Did you see the edible spoons?” Credit Edibles by Jack for the Asian spoons in various flavors. And, the “meat straw” from Benny’s Bloody Mary Beef Straw company is potentially worth waiting for—it comes out later this summer. “I was bartending and I was bored,” Ben Hirko told us. It seems like a good idea, although he only had prototypes on display. Hang onto your celery sticks, though, because we suspect this may usher in a whole new trend!
Bonus: We met a lot of interesting people but we have to give a shout out to Kevin Zraly, winner of this year’s James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award. For one thing, he’s just plain entertaining, but he’s also generous with his time and advice, and he’s full of stories. The founder of the Windows on the World Wine School was engaging, and we’ll be watching him more closely now, as should you.
Over the next few weeks we’ll be bringing you more of our stories from the Show, including some great video. So check back and learn the latest from The Food Channel and the 2011 National Restaurant Association Show.