During this year’s National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago, the team from Marlin Connections — Advantage Solutions’ foodservice marketing agency — covered the exhibit floor and met with experts and innovators from all over the industry to learn what trends will be driving the restaurant and foodservice segments moving forward.

Here’s what we found:

Plant-based goes beyond just meat

Plant-based food is no longer just about replacing beef and chicken on the center of the plate. From eggs to seafood to ice cream, plant-based products are rapidly expanding into what we might not think are traditional dayparts or occasions for plant-based foods. For example, consider Yo Egg’s plant-based egg with a yolk that looked and tasted as good as a real chicken egg. Look for egg alternatives to become mainstream across breakfast menus.

There are many different ingredients being used in plant-based products today. It’s no longer just soy-based products. Brands are using mushrooms, chickpeas, cashews, macadamia nuts, oats, split peas, monk fruit and hemp, among other ingredients.

Plant-based products and brands were everywhere at NRA this year and we expect bigger things to come in this segment.

The robots are here

We have been awaiting the rise of the robots since at least the days of Rosey the housekeeper on “The Jetsons.” (Not to mention hovercrafts!) Given their presence at NRA, that time may have finally arrived for the foodservice industry, with a multitude of automated back-of-house robotic options. And with a continuing labor shortage and the growth of AI, the time to explore these options has never been better.

During the show we saw the Spotless by Nala dishwashing robot; the Robojo coffee barista that can make up to 250 different variations of coffee beverages and make a drink in less than 60 seconds; and robot waiters from Bear Robotics. The concepts, like Rosey herself, aren’t totally new, but the vastly improved technology is. From restaurants to stadiums, amusement parks, hotels, corporate campuses and more, robot waiters and service staff will certainly become a familiar site in the near future.

Sustainability is here to stay

Sustainability has been a hot topic in the restaurant industry for years, but this year’s NRA showed us new innovations to keep Mother Earth just a little bit cleaner.

“It’s a trend that’s here to stay,” says Alex Nicolaou, the Coca-Cola Co.’s senior manager for sustainability customer strategy, during an educational session titled “Driving Growth with Sustainability.”

One of our favorite sustainable innovations from NRA was the edible cutlery from Incredible Eats. The straws, forks, sporks and spoons come in both sweet and savory flavors and are perfect for desserts, iced drinks, savory bowls and more. The best part, there is no waste left behind.

Sustainability doesn’t just mean better-for-the-environment utensils, cups and single-use solutions. It also means that our planet and its natural resources remain protected, including animals. We covered the aforementioned booming plant-based trend, but these protein alternatives are also doing their part to keep sustainability at the forefront of foodservice industry.

AI is changing the game

OpenAI and ChatGPT are hot topics these days — not just in the foodservice business, but across all industries. The impact these technologies are having is unprecedented.

One of our favorite NRA experiences was testing out the SoundHound ordering platform. Imagine pulling up to the drive-thru and instead of a muffled voice coming through the box, you get the clear, crisp sound of a computer. The brand, a leading innovator of conversational intelligence, offers an independent voice AI platform that provides solutions for restaurants to enable automated phone, kiosk and drive-thru ordering, helping restaurants to gain operational efficiencies and serve more customers.

While AI is still fairly new in the foodservice industry, it is rapidly becoming a widely looked-at solution to the ever-growing set of challenges operators face. We expect to see AI-based technologies become even more popular with full-service solutions for all types of operator needs at the forefront.

Have it your way with automated customization

While Burger King might have scrapped their old slogan “Have it Your Way” back in 2014, the sentiment is now truer than ever. From coffee to condiments to burgers, automated customization was all over the NRA show floor.

Among the new innovations we saw were the Costa Smart Café (owned by Coca-Cola), a revolutionary piece of autonomous equipment that provides barista-quality coffee at the touch of a button from a fully interactive, intuitive HD touchscreen; Aniai’s Alpha Grill, which is specifically designed for burger patties and combines state-of-the-art AI and automation technology to perfectly follow restaurants’ recipes; and, best of all, the debut of the Heinz Remix condiment machine, the first digital sauce dispenser that allows consumers to personalize their own flavor creations.

With this exciting wave of automation, the foodservice industry is poised to take customization to the next level.

Jill Haber
Account Director
Marlin Connections

Jill Haber has more than 20 years of agency experience developing and executing strategic integrated marketing programs for some of the world's top brands.