Image via Ocean Hugger Foods.

Over the weekend, the National Restaurant Association held its 100th annual conference at Chicago’s McCormick Place.

Every May, the show gathers thousands of restaurant chains, tech companies, and food-industry pundits alike to discuss where the food world is headed, be it new ingredients or new technology. Where last year’s show was all about cool developments like automated cocktails and debating the future of food delivery, the 2019 event focused heavily on sustainability and making restaurants more efficient.

Much of these new food and tech products will soon be in restaurants, so with that in mind, here’s a look at some show highlights that tell us where the future of the industry is headed:

Alt-protein has gone truly mainstream.
Plant-based foods’ current relevance in our lives — particularly around meat and fish alternatives — can’t be overstated, it seems. On display at this weekend’s show were multiple products that showed us how varied the use cases for plant-based proteins actually are. Impossible Foods, who’s becoming impossible to ignore, was there with its bleeding burger. MorningStar Farms had its version of chorizo on display, which is reportedly a “dead ringer” for the real thing, while Chicago-based company Phoenix Bean handed out samples of its tofu al pastor product.

Also garnering quite a bit of attention was Ocean Hugger, who debuted its plant-based “eel” sushi product, which joins the company’s roster alongside its plant-based tuna and forthcoming “salmon” offerings.

Oh hay, here’s a new take on the plastic straw.
Along with plant-based meat alternatives, finding a better straw is fast moving to the top of many restaurants goal sheets. It has to be, given that legislators are pushing for plastic-straw bans across cities and mega-companies like Starbucks are phasing the the product out.

At this weekend’s show, an obvious solution to the plastic-straw dilemma surfaced: straw. HAY! Straws, a company based in San Francisco, proposes using biodegradable wheat stems to make plastic straws that are sturdier than a paper version and less costly than metal straws.

A number of hospitality businesses are currently using Hay! straws, including high-end restaurant Atlas, in Atlanta, GA, Blue Sushi Sake Grill in Cleveland, OH, and Magnolia Hotels chain.

Better tech means a better restaurant brand overall.
Behind-the-scenes tech that powers restaurants tends not to get the same hype as something like plant-based proteins, but without it, restaurants would be hemorrhaging money on training, management, and operations.

Streamlining such processes with tech is key nowadays for restaurants. “By simplify[ing] these processes, it makes the GMs’ jobs easier to do. When the GM has an easier job, they do better at it,” Micah Hardt, director of training at CEC Entertainment Inc., said during a panel over the weekend.

That includes everything from giving your GM one less hat to wear to communications to getting franchisees onboard with digital transformation.

From a hardware perspective, that could also include introducing some robotics to the business — if, that is, it’ll make servers’ jobs easier rather than taking them away. Bear Robotics’ Penny, the brand new second generation of which was seen milling about the show this weekend, is one such example. The robot can expedite some of the more mundane tasks and free up servers’ time to focus on the hospitality aspect of the restaurant business.

Bear was selected as one of the winners at the show’s 2019 Kitchen Innovations program, which hand-picks the best in foodservice equipment and innovation. Chowbotics also won an award, for Sally the Robot, which automates and serves up customized salads and grain bowls.

You can see a full list of the winners here.

In the meantime, we’ll be keeping our eyes open for all these new developments as they make their way from show floor to restaurant floor in the coming months.

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Jenn is a writer and editor for The Spoon who covers restaurant tech and food delivery, developments in agriculture and indoor farming, and startup accelerators and incubators. On the side, she moonlights as a ghostwriter for tech industry executives and spends a lot of time on the road exploring food developments in more remote parts of the country. Previously, she was managing editor of Gigaom’s market research department and was once a competitive pinball player. Jenn splits her time between NYC and Nashville, TN.

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