Plant-based foods, off-premise tech solutions stood out at restaurant show

Plant-based foods and beverages, technology solutions aimed at optimizing takeout and delivery, and edible alternatives to straws and utensils stood out on the show floor at the 2019 National Restaurant Association Show. More than 2,300 exhibitors showcased their products and services at the association’s 100th annual show, which concluded yesterday.

Animal-free alternatives to burgers, milk and more

Plant-based meats have been a top trend at the show several years running, and it’s impossible to ignore their growing presence on the show floor and on restaurant menus. Meat alternatives from Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and Before the Butcher won FABI Awards this year, and the companies’ booths were consistently surrounded by showgoers seeking to sample the meatless products.

Impossible Foods showcased burgers and tacos made with its newly revamped beef alternative made from soy and potato protein. The company announced earlier this week that it created a sausage-alternative for pizza chain Little Caesar’s. The seasoned blend is exclusive to the chain, which will test it in three markets, and Impossible doesn’t have plans to make the sausage widely available, Impossible’s Communications Operations Specialist Esther Cohn said on the show floor. The company recently won $300 million in new funding to increase production in order to keep up with growing demand, and Cohn said it has temporarily suspended production of its patty product to focus on the bulk format.

Several plant-based protein companies offer products in bulk format, which is popular for foodservice operations because of its versatility. The flexibility to create different dishes with one product was the driving force behind Morningstar Farms’ Signature Protein Blend product, said Kelly Grzyb, marketing manager for Kellogg Company. Morningstar farms offers two flavor varieties of the plant-based product, which can be formed into patties or meatballs. Beyond Meat showed off the new bulk format of its Beyond Beef product, which will be available in 1 lb. bricks for foodservice this summer.

Plant-based alternatives to seafood, eggs and dairy also drew crowds at this year’s show. Ocean Hugger Foods, which made waves a couple years ago with its tomato-based tuna alternative, debuted its new eel analog made from eggplant. JUST featured dishes made with its mung bean-based JUST Egg product. Restaurant chains including Silver Diner and Bareburger have begun offering the egg alternative, which is available as a patty or in liquid form.

The non-dairy milk of the moment was undoubtedly oat milk. Coffee brand La Colombe handed out samples of its Oat Milk Draft Latte, while Oatly showed off its Barista Edition Oatmilk.

Making off-premise easier

One of the top themes at the show this year is the growing role of off-premise in the restaurant industry, and the challenges it creates for operators. Making it easier for consumers to get delivery and takeout orders is key, but high fees from third-party delivery companies and keeping up with the added volume off-premise orders are major pain points for restaurants.

Omnivore demonstrated its universal point-of-sale connectivity platform, which aims to streamline operations and create a single source of truth for restaurants. The web-based control panel can help restaurants eliminate the issues that can arise when multiple third-party ordering and delivery partners result in a tangled web of tablets. On the first day of the show, the company announced the launch of its Menu Management Solution developed with The Coca-Cola Company, one of Omnivore’s lead Series A investors.

“Creating oversight and control over digital menu management will further allow restaurant brands to increase sales and decrease expenses by streamlining operations and customer experience across all of their third-party partnerships,” Omnivore CEO Mike Wior said in a statement.

While finding a more organized way to deal with third-party orders may be the best way forward for some restaurants, others are seeking a solution that lets them take delivery into their own hands. Almost 70% of restaurants pay more than 10% of delivery revenue back to third-party delivery companies, according to a survey of more than 100 restaurant operators by Foodsby. The Minneapolis-based company launched in 2012 to offer restaurants an alternative to third-party delivery, and its workplace-centric delivery model now operates in more than 150 cities. Foodsby connects restaurants with consumers who work in nearby offices, collecting lunch orders through its app that are then relayed to restaurants so they can make one mass delivery. For consumers, each order has a flat fee of $1.99, and orders generate an average ticket price of $250 a day for restaurants, VP of Marketing Jeff Snyder said.

Enabling restaurants to take control of their deliveries through consolidation is also the idea behind Sync Delivery, a software tool that made its debut this week at the show’s Startup Alley. Founder John Martins said he did an initial test at the US Naval Academy where his son was a student, teaming with local restaurants including Chick-Fil-A and Bruster’s Ice Cream. Colleges and universities are a perfect place for the many-orders-one-delivery model, said Martins, who plans to launch the software at the University of Maryland.

For restaurants with a heavy volume of takeout orders, finding counter space for bags and boxes and holding food at the right temperature can be major challenges. Apex Supply Chain Technologies offers several solutions in the form of compartments that let customers scan a code and retrieve their food. The company won a Kitchen Innovations Award this year for its AXCESS 2000.H Pick-Up Station. Developed in partnership with Little Caesars, the system is the industry’s first heated, self-serve order pick-up station.

Edible utensils are a creative way to combat waste

The show floor was packed with companies offering straws and utensils made from non-plastic materials from bamboo to hay, but a couple went one step further with utensils designed to be eaten. Edible utensils may not be the answer to preventing plastic waste, but they do provide an intriguing option for restaurants looking to cut back on single-use plastics.

Made with Bloody Mary cocktails in mind, Benny’s Original Meat Straws are jerky-like tubes that can act as both a straw and a garnish.

Offering an alternative to disposable spoons, Planeteer debuted edible spoons that come in several shapes and flavors to complement different dishes. The spoons have a crunchy, cracker-like texture that will hold up in a bowl of soup for about 20 minutes, and the company plans to launch coffee stirrers in the near future.

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