No longer a meat and potato society

To satisfy a more sophisticated, educated and engaged customer, the food and beverage service industry is always on the lookout for the latest trends and most efficient ways to deliver those eats and drinks.

Operators representing fast food, casual dining, bakeries, institutional feeding, catering, liquor establishments and plain old street vendors came together May 21-24 at McCormick Place in Chicago for the 100th National Restaurant Association Show. More than 50,000 attendees from all over the world had the opportunity to view exhibits and educational forums, covering various food, beverage, equipment and technology innovations.

This is not the food and beverage industry of 10-20 years ago. With the advent of technology, changing consumer palates and food allergies, it’s not even the same business as two or three years ago. What, where and how we eat and drink is undergoing the biggest change ever, and owners and managers of food operations that do not keep up with the latest trends might find themselves at a financial disadvantage or go out of business.

What potential diners look for most in selecting restaurants are service, quality, value, favorite items, location and nutrition.

Today’s foodies have also made it known they want it made “fresh.” A growing segment has come to demand natural ingredients with local sourcing and environmental sustainability in the equation. Sure, some people still crave deep-fried foods or a big porterhouse, but there is a movement afoot to provide healthier options, with an added emphasis in school cafeterias.

In walking the aisles of McCormick Place, it’s apparent we’re not a meat-and-potato society anymore. Vegetable-based proteins, exotic fruit blends, allergy-free products, indigenous grains and anything low-fat were on display everywhere.

By now, everyone has heard of plant-based burgers, but did you know that fishless fish has also entered the market. With oceans being over-fished, a less-expensive, plant-based product has been developed.

Some people aren’t ready to commit to a strict vegetarian or vegan diet, so the term ‘flexitarian’ has been coined for anyone that eats both meat and plant-based foods.

With celiac disease and other allergy and health-related concerns on the rise, the food industry has changed its focus and is become more accommodating in its menu-planning. No longer is gluten, dairy, soy or nut-free considered a nuisance to food operators, but an essential part of creating a secure and safe dining experience.

One hot trend at the NRA show was the incorporation of allergy-free food products into the total dining experience. It’s not so much what you want on your pizza, but whether the crust is regular or gluten-free, such as made with cauliflower.

NRA research shows that today’s consumer is more adventuresome and willing to sample more exotic dishes. Television channels like Food Network and Travel Channel also contribute to a more engaged dining patron. The corny era of Julia Child (French Chef) and Graham Kerr (the Galloping Gourmet) on TV is so passé.

Among ethnic cuisines, Vietnamese, Peruvian, Korean, Ethiopian, Brazilian and Filipino (ever had purple yam ube pancakes?) are on the move. None are ready to supplant long-time faves Mexican, Italian or Chinese as the most popular among us, but they have begun to make inroads in our eating consciousness.

The American public hasn’t gone completely bonkers in abandoning old favorites, though. One of the original comfort foods – macaroni and cheese – is riding a wave of newfound popularity via a variety of menu reincarnations. And an NRA survey shows that BBQ, hamburger, pizza, French fries, ice cream and fried chicken remain perennial favorites.

High-priced steakhouses aren’t going away either. With the fascination with all things food, there is plenty of room at the table for the meat and potatoes crowd and the sprout eaters.

Anyone for drinks such as pistachio milk, hard seltzers, flavored sparkling waters or CBD-infused tea? Starbucks coming to Rochelle is an indication of the growing trend of the sophistication of non-alcoholic quaffs. A far cry from the days of coffee percolators and cream/sugar only.

Civic leaders in Rochelle are quite aggressive in promoting the Hub City to potential businesses and in Starbucks case, utilized a real estate development company.

That company, Location Finders International, laid the groundwork for the first drive-thru Starbucks in Illinois and also has close ties with Jimmy Johns, another chain that has made Rochelle one of its nearly 3,000 sites.

Getting a fast food chain to come a town is relatively easy. Landing a full-service chain, such as an Olive Garden or Texas Roadhouse is a different story.

Those operations will look to the Quad-cities or Rockford first, with a secondary market being the Sycamore/DeKalb corridor, Freeport or Sterling.

The location of Rochelle is widely acclaimed, but its population base puts it at a disadvantage to the bigger markets. 

Having a busy Interstate 39 doesn’t help much either, as research has shown that those travelers want to grabs eats and back on the road as soon as possible. Perfect for the Culvers and Taco Bell, not so much for sit-down meals.

Today’s food service operators face so many more challenges than their predecessors. There had always been a high turnover in labor, but the problem has been compounded with lack of workers and rising wage costs.

Starbucks at Rochelle was an exception, readily able to fill its positions. Being a hip national brand helps.

With so many fast-food establishments unable to staff in-house and depending on drive-thru, a heavy emphasis has been on carry-out or delivery meals.

It was a growing market prior to COVID-19, but really catapulted since then.

Fast food pioneer McDonalds did not have its first drive-thru until 1975, but they now account for 70 percent of its revenue.

Another burgeoning trend are non-traditional set ups for banquets, weddings receptions, meetings, etc. Several can be found throughout the area, be it a refurbished barn or a simple metal building.

With the ability to charge more for meals than what restaurants and the luxury of knowing how many guests to plan for, these places can be easier to manage than a seven-day a week operation that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.

A significant change in food service on display at the NRA show was in technology. A vast area of the McCormick floor space was set aside for tech only, something unheard of years ago when restaurants were still using manual credit card machines.

An NRA survey found that a tablet or iPhone is used by 70 percent of adults when dining out, for things like a restaurant’s hours/location, making a reservation, menu, nutritional info, reviews and paying the bill.

Understanding and engaging millennials can be critical to the bottom line, especially for the national chains.

The real bottom line, though, is delivering a quality product on a reliable basis. For example, the Beacon did that in Rochelle for decades without any need for technology or engaging its clientele.

People of all ages went there because Paul Stavrakas offered good food and service.

The National Restaurant Show had everything connected to the food business one could ever imagine, except for the one key component that makes it all work. And that is the owner/operator that is truly invested pouring his/her heart and soul into the business.

Andy Colbert is a certified executive chef with the American Culinary Society and has a degree in nutrition.


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