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3 Key Trends on Display at 2023 National Restaurant Association Show

A majority (62%) of foodservice operators are currently understaffed, according to the National Restaurant Association's State of the Restaurant Industry Report, 2023.

Foodservice operators gathered in Chicago for the 2023 National Restaurant Association Show recently to see the latest in food & beverages and technologies for the restaurant industry. With labor shortages a key issue among restaurant owners, exhibitors focused on solutions designed to help operators with attracting and retaining workers. An abundance of time-saving, fully cooked foods, robots, and POS systems were on display in Chicago.

Fully Cooked Foods

Using fully cooked meats and vegetables in the kitchen not only reduces food preparation time and improves consistency but allows restaurant owners to hire workers with less experience.

Tyson Foods Inc. showcased its new Hillshire Farm Carved Pork Belly as an elevated and versatile ingredient that can work in many dishes. The product won the National Restaurant Association's Food and Beverage (FABI) Award. Tyson Foods stated that the ready to serve product can work for multiple dayparts and cuisines such as tacos and a Thai-style red curry pizza that was served at the 2023 National Restaurant Association Show.

Grecian Delight | Kronos introduced a new Coconut Curry Chicken flavor to its ReadyCarved line of global proteins. Like the other ReadyCarved whole-muscle varieties including Chicken Shawarma and Pork Al Pastor, these fully cooked, pre-seasoned, and pre-sliced products allow restaurants to offer authentic ethnic flavors to diners without requiring preparation time. Roland Foods, LLC displayed time-saving products such as Roland Oven Roasted Cherry Tomatoes, which are sliced and ready-to-use.


A robotic bartender that can chat with customers and mix cocktails was the highlight of the 2023 National Restaurant Association Show. from GKI Group is the world's first interactive robotic bartender according to the company. Cecilia is a 3D avatar powered by conversational AI (artificial intelligence) and voice recognition abilities that can make conversation while mixing about 120 cocktails and mocktails per hour (without engaging in conversations).

Using conversational AI, Cecilia can guide customers through the menu and tell jokes while making customized cocktails on demand.

Additionally, Atosa USA, Inc. showcased its Intelligent French Fry Robotic Solution that won the National Restaurant Association's 2023 Kitchen Innovations Award. Robot servers that bring trays of food to diners' tables can free up employees to interact with customers while reducing the physical burden of carrying heavy plates back-and-forth. Bear Robotics, Inc. highlighted its robots' ability to provide greater efficiency and guest experiences. Its Servi+ hospitality robot offers increased capacity (16+ dishes or 4 standard bus tubs), and expanded 88-pound payload.

AUTEC also displayed a sushi-making robot; the ASM865A Maki Maker can produce up to 1300 rice sheets per hour for sushi rolls and burritos. Akiko Yamaguchi, marketing director for AUTEC, told The Food Institute that its sushi robots are especially popular in the college and university setting where student workers frequently turn over.

POS Systems on Display

POS (point-of-sale) systems are evolving into business operating systems according to Bryan Solar, chief product officer, at SpotOn.

While 80% of the market is still on legacy POS systems, restaurant operators are moving towards cloud-based POS systems as they learn how using technology can protect their profits through an understanding of costs, Solar told The Food Institute. More than 40% of foodservice operators are reportedly planning to invest in technology or equipment to increase productivity, the NRA said.

The new SpotOn Handheld device helps servers turn tables faster through quicker bill presentation and payment, while the SpotOn Reserve restaurant reservation system helps hosts seat guests faster by providing table information with flags that show statuses like drinks, main course, or check paid. In the back-of-the house, restaurants are using kitchen display systems – a large screen in the kitchen that displays ticket orders in real-time – to track, route, and prioritize orders to improve accuracy. Food Institute Focus

Study: Plant-Based Attains Popularity with Gen Z

An eye-opening 81% of college students will choose a plant-based food offering when it's the default option, according to a recent study led by foodservice provider Sodexo.

And these Gen Zers are more interested in plant-based options than previous generations.

"A lot of college-aged individuals are much more aware of not only the health benefits of plant-based eating, but of its impact on the impending climate crisis," said Matthew Kenney, CEO of Matthew Kenney Cuisine and co-founder of Ntidote. "Educational content and information about climate change has never been as ubiquitous as it is now, and that evokes a reaction from the younger generation due to the sheer urgency of it."

Knowing this, what can food manufacturers do to capitalize? Let's break down the study and see what experts had to say:

Key Plant-Based Findings

The study, which was led by Sodexo, along with the Food for Climate League, and Better Food Foundation, observed dining halls at three universities. The study noted what would happen if plant-based dishes were presented as the default option versus a meat option. Eight meals were offered in the dining halls, which offered one vegan and one meat option.

The meals were then presented in two different ways – plant default and control days. On plant default days, only the vegan options were put out, but students had the option to ask for the meat alternative. On control days, meat and plant-based options were offered side-by-side.

The eventual findings: on plant-default days, 81% of students stuck with the vegan option – which was an increase from the 31% of students who regularly chose the plant-based option. The findings also showed that students were more likely to express satisfaction with plant-based meals on days when it was the default option.

Key Conclusions

Based on findings from the study, Sodexo concluded that using plant-based as a default option can help create a positive attitude toward a vegan meal, and that normalizing plant-based foods could make this option even more popular among Gen Z-aged consumers.

"This study confirms what we've seen repeatedly – that Gen Z students are not only open to plant-centered dining...they feel good about eating in places that (feature) plant-based meals," Jennifer Channin, the Better Food Foundation's executive director, said in a press release.

"These findings give us hope that the plant-centered food system our world needs is easier to achieve than we used to think."

The Food Institute spoke with a few experts who weighed in on what can be done to make plant-based options more appealing to the masses.

Increasing Plant-Based Appeal

Fergus Smithers, head chef at plant-based food subscription service Grubby, told The Food Institute that getting in front of school-aged consumers is key. Free samples are a great example of this and it's also a great way to get feedback from them, Smithers said.

‘In my opinion the best way to get students to choose plant-based food options is to make them relatable," the chef added. "Design dishes and menus around recipes that students are likely to be cooking in their student halls. There's no point in trying to reinvent the wheel."

Marketing expert Kay Gowrinath said it's essential that companies like food manufacturers look at the driving factors for college-aged students.

"Speed, convenience and cost should be considered alongside ethical components, including packaging choices and sustainability," Gowrinath, the managing director of Xquisite Productions, said regarding plant-based products. "A strong brand that's well-positioned and culturally inclusive will tend to do well, especially if they're creative enough to connect with the customers in real life and via the digital world in which they're immersed." Food Institute Focus

Poll Shows Americans Have Become Adventurous Eaters

A recent survey suggests there's pent-up demand to eat out — and to try new flavors — as American consumers become more adventurous eaters.

Nearly half of the survey's respondents (47%) said they're tired of cooking the same foods at home. Findings also showed that the average American tries at least six new recipes per month, reported

Market research firm OnePoll surveyed 2,000 Americans and found that more than half of them (53%) consider themselves adventurous eaters. Some 58% of respondents reimagine food by adding different seasonings, while 52% indicated they often use different base ingredients. Meanwhile, Americans expressed an openness to trying international cuisine, with 42% saying they had tried Vietnamese food, while 36% of respondents indicated they had tried Indian food, for example.

"Global cuisine is very on-trend right now," said Megan Wortman, executive director of the American Lamb Board (the organization which commissioned the study).

"The new generations are looking for bolder flavors and aren't afraid to try new things," Raji Sankar, co-founder of Choolaah Indian BBQ restaurants, recently told The Food Institute. "Americans have become huge fans of international cuisines like Asian, Italian, Mexican, and Vietnamese. ... Part of it is how global our world is [now]; the Internet gives access to anything and everything."

The COVID-19 pandemic created an opportunity for restaurants offering bold international cuisine, as many customers grew desperate for unique flavors not found in their pantry.

OnePoll's findings showed the average American would travel nearly a half hour to eat their favorite food. Finally, the poll also revealed the top factors that inspire consumers to try a new cuisine, including:

· Friend or family member recommendation – 47%

·  If it was conveniently located/nearby – 39%

·  When I am traveling to that location – 35%

·  My partner encouraged me to try it – 27%

·  Someone else cooks it for me – 24%

Read more: Food Institute Focus

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Store News:

Panda Express is getting academic. The University of Pennsylvania's Asian American Studies Program is now accepting applications for the Panda Express Postdoctoral Fellowship. The California-based fast-food chain will endow a $65,000 fellowship for one year "plus applicable benefits and an allocation for research expenses" as students teach, plan, and grow within UPenn's Asian American Studies program, reported The Takeout (May 22). Full Story

McDonald's and Chick-fil-A's apps are using location data to time when they start cooking mobile orders. The apps track when customers are near the restaurant to ensure orders are ready and hot when customers arrive, reported Business Insider (May 29). Full Story

Wake Up Call, a coffeehouse chain, is set to expand following the acquisition of 13 locations of Black Rock Coffee Bar in Washington state. The locations will now be converted into Wake Up Call coffeehouses, reported Daily Coffee News (May 24). Full Story

Chipotle founder Steve Ells is developing a new automated restaurant called Kernel. Expected to open in New York City late this year, the robotic concept can reportedly be operated with as few as three employees, reported Restaurant Business (May 25). Full Story

Panera guests can now pick up digital orders at the drive-thru. As many chains struggle to find the right drive-thru balance, Panera says about 50% of its sales are now digital – more than 3 million transactions per week – prompting the move, reported Restaurant Business (May 31). Full Story

IHOP has shuttered its fast-casual spinoff, Flip'd. After two years and just four locations, the pancake chain said it would apply lessons learned from its grab-and-go concept to other parts of its business. The off-concept pilot reported 60% of its business was from dine-in, and IHOP did not disclose many details regarding the closures, reported Restaurant Business. Full Story

The auction for Subway is expected to come to a head in about a month, with about a half-dozen parties still vying for the sandwich chain, including private equity firms Roark Capital Group and London-based TDR Capital. Subway is expected to fetch more than $9 billion, after initially seeking more than $10 billion, reported Bloomberg (June 2). Full Story

Nick the Greek, a Northern California-based chain, recently opened its 60th restaurant, in Visalia, California. The Greek street food chain announced it plans to have 80 locations by the end of the year. Full Story

"Cook-it-yourself" Asian chain GEN Korean BBQ is planning an IPO. The 32-location concept plans to raise $25 million, reported Restaurant Business (May 31). Full Story

Foodservice distributor Ben E. Keith Foods has acquired Orrell's Food Service. The acquisition includes all Orrell's Food Service, including the 106,000-sq.-ft. distribution center in Linwood, North Carolina, as well as JEM Foods, a meat processing plant also located in Linwood, reported Foodmarket. Full Story

Popeyes has added a blackened chicken option to its coveted sandwich, the first new sandwich option since it debuted four years ago. Customers can also add bacon and Havarti cheese as well, reported CNBC (June 6). Full Story

Pizza Hut has added Pickle Pizza to its menu, claiming to be the first national quick-service pizza chain to serve it. The chain said the new menu item was inspired by "the recent resurgence of pickles," reported (June 7). Full Story

Red Robin has sold nine locations for $29 million, in a sale-leaseback deal. The restaurant chain will use the proceeds to repay debt and buy back stock. Full Story

Sweetgreen's CEO expects all restaurant units will be automated within five years. Just one month after opening its automated kitchen concept, Sweetgreen CEO Jonathan Neman is "super pleased" with its progress and expects all units to be automated by 2028, reported Restaurant Business (June 7). Full Story

Taco Bell will test Vegan Crunchwraps with plant-based beef and cheese in three cities after 25% of 2022 sales at Yum Brands were vegetarian or vegan. Full Story

Starbucks is considering a wider range of store designs. The coffee chain is contemplating different versions of its traditional drive-thru locations and pickup stores. But it may also try delivery-only units, reported Restaurant Business (June 6). Full Story

Long John Silver's plans further growth in Southeast Asia. The country recently opened outposts in Singapore and Indonesia, reported Seafood Source (June 12). Full Story

BurgerFi has chosen Carl Bachmann to be its next CEO. Bachmann had previously served as Smashburger's CEO, reported Foodmarket. Full Story


Beef Prices Expected to Stay High

A quick trip to the grocery store's meat aisle confirms beef prices are at record highs as packers scramble to find higher grade cattle. Though some beef prices fell ahead of Memorial Day, prices are expected to stay elevated.

The number of head of cattle slaughtered was down 3.2% last week from 2022 levels, Drovers reported (May 27). Both spot and futures prices are up.

"I remain optimistic for this year's feeder cattle market," DTN Livestock Analyst Shayle Stewart wrote in Progressive Farmer (May 29), noting the first real test of prices this summer comes soon with the early summer feeder calf specials.

The rise in prices is the result of drought and the downsizing cattlemen did during the pandemic when it was difficult to get cattle to feedlots.

"All those sales will be worth tuning into as their markets will establish a tone for contracting calves and will begin to set a precedent for what feeder cattle prices could be in 2023," Stewart wrote.

"No one knows when the market's yearly top for feeder cattle prices will be rung, but I'm under the impression that, if beef demand remains strong, and if drought pressures can be eased (even slightly), feeder cattle prices during the second half of the year could be a surprise as our industry is incredibly short on calves."

Continuing drought in the southern plains has left cattlemen reeling, forcing them to buy supplemental feed to make up for dry pastures.

"Since last August, up until three weeks ago when we got a couple of inches of rain, we've had almost no moisture whatsoever," Johnny Owens, who owns yearlings near Buffalo, Oklahoma, told Farm Progress (May 30). "It's too expensive to feed all winter and this summer. Producers with cows have culled heavily and will begin liquidating herds if a turnaround does not occur within the next 30 to 60 days."

Annual U.S. beef consumption is down annually per capita, but the amount eaten in the United States hit a high of 30 billion pounds in 2021, an 8.7% increase from 2020, Statista reported (Feb. 21).

Last year saw production of 12.6 million metric tons of beef, Statista noted. Food Institute Focus


Restaurant Industry Sees Softest Sales Growth Since July 2022

Restaurants saw year-over-year same-store sales and traffic growth fall for the third consecutive month in April, according to Guest XM by Black Box Intelligence. The industry experienced its softest sales growth since July 2022. Full Story

Meanwhile, restaurants may be more bullish on summer spending than the consumers inside them. Though many restaurants expect a spending boon, roughly 33% of consumers plan to dine out less before July and about half expect to maintain conservative spending habits, reported CNBC (May 29). Full Story

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