Originally published by Nancy Kruse on LinkedIn: Walking the Floor: Innovations from NRA Show 2016

Several years ago the National Restaurant Association instituted the Food and Beverage (FABI) Awards, which have become an important part of the hoopla surrounding its massive NRA Show held annually in Chicago. Chosen by a panel of expert judges representing culinary education, the restaurant press and multiple segments of the foodservice industry, their purpose is to recognize innovations in food and beverage that can make a significant impact on the restaurant business. The FABIs are especially valuable because they constitute a leading indicator of emerging consumer dining trends.

  1. Next-gen healthful. From their inception, the FABIs have recognized creative gluten-free products, and there’s typically a batch of organic-food winners, too. Examples of both are among this year’s honorees, but there are also products that suggest the shape of things to come. Pepsico Foodservice’s Stubborn Soda, for example, delivers “an elevated soda experience” with unexpected flavor combinations like Wild Black Cherry with Tarragon. Equally important, the beverages use Fair Trade Certified Cane Sugar, prized by sweet-seeking Millennials who want a less guilt-inducing alternative to the conventional refined stuff. Grower Pete’s Organic Living Baby Butter Lettuce is a hydroponically grown, roots-attached lettuce that addresses the nascent demand for living foods, which advocates tout for their higher nutrient values versus cooked foods. Brio Ice Creams offer a veritable smorgasbord of benefits, running the gamut from what they include, like antioxidants and probiotics, to what they exclude, like GMOs and hormones. The cherry on top: They have half the fat and 20% fewer calories than traditional premium ice creams. It’s like a dietary brass ring for consumers who love to feel virtuous while they indulge.
  2. Snackification. Our growing propensity to eschew three squares in favor of multiple smaller bites throughout the day has led to a flurry of innovation in the snack-food categories, both sweet and savory. Boulart’s Ciabatta Bites come in various flavors like red pepper and onion for eating or dipping. Stonefire’s Naan Dippers are bite-sized, too. They’re also made with buttermilk and ghee and baked in a tandoor oven. Hail Merry, a multiple FABI winner in the past, scored again this year with Salted Brownie Merry Bites, plant-based, chewy chocolate treats made with organic virgin coconut oil, while Prince Waffles’ Sweet Filled Authentic Belgian Waffles are filled with real fruit, custard or Belgian chocolate. Diners can wash down these tasty treats with Natalie’s Orchid Island Juice Company’s Squeezed Fresh Tomato Juice, which boasts fresh tomatoes as its one and only ingredient--a terrific example of the trend toward simple foods that’s moving rapidly into foodservice from the retail-grocery sector.
  3. Foreign accents. American diners’ willingness to experiment with ethic foods and flavors constitutes one of the foundations of contemporary menu R&D, and the 2016 FABIs represent an especially broad sampling of the world’s pantry. Hailing from different parts of the globe, Atalanta’s Peruvian Sauces and Bulsara’s Original All Natural 15 Minute Easy Tandoori Wet Rub Marinade both deliver authentic flavors of less familiar cuisines. By contrast, Rustichella d’Abruzzo’s 90” Rapida Spaghetti promises a familiar favorite that cooks to a perfectly al dente texture in a mere 90 seconds. Australis Aquaculture’s Skin-On Barramundi is sustainably grown seafood from down under, while Sevillo Fine Foods offers Fire Roasted Artichoke Hearts and Slow Roasted Red Tomatoes straight from the Mediterranean kitchen.

Other standouts this year plugged into consumers’ predilection for smoked foods, as with Atalanta’s L’Estornell Smoked Oil, cold-smoked and made from Arbequina olives, and Wagshal’s USDA Prime Smoked Beef Brisket that boasts a 50+ day curing and smoking process.  Like the products described above, they exemplify what FABI winners have in common: a killer combination of labor savings to the operator and appealing taste to the diner.