CHICAGO — At a trade show dedicated to restaurants, you might not expect to hear much about another corner of the food industry that starts with an “R” and an “E” — retail.

But times have changed, and as one educational program at the 2018 National Restaurant Association Show made abundantly clear, hot prepared foods and other segments of instore grocery are very much on the minds of the restaurant world — and vice versa.

“In the past there was a divide between the grocery store and foodservice,” Amanda Topper, associate director of foodservice research at market research firm Mintel, said in the NRA ’18 session she led, “The Power of Foodservice at Retail.” “Now we’re seeing that line becoming more blurred.”

Here in Chicago, Topper told attendees, you can go to grocery retailer Mariano’s and hit the oyster bar. Or check out the selection of hot prepared bowls at Whole Foods. Or, if you live in the Northeast, you can take a pit stop at a pub midway through your weekly shopping trip at Wegmans. Down the coast, try out the “organic fast food” options at Walmart in Orlando.

Much of the retail foodservice surge, Topper says, can be traced to an old reliable source: consumers’ pocketbooks. “Consumers are interested in dining out, but they’re a little more price-conscious.” That, she says, represents a big opportunity for grocery stores, and a way for them to reverse the market share in their industry.  By 2022, according to Mintel forecasts, non-supermarket multi-outlet retailers will account for 52.1 percent of all grocery sales, and supermarkets 47.9 percent.

“It’s becoming more important for retailers to stand out from the competition,” Topper says.

Forty percent of consumers have bought a fresh prepared meal at a grocery store, Topper said, citing Mintel data. Twenty-four percent say they’d like to see more meal options at retail, and 28 percent want more grab ‘n go items. Sandwich stations and sit-down restaurants are among the retail foodservice options those surveyed would like to see more of.

Those most likely to eat prepared foods from a grocery store? Millennial urban males with higher incomes, according to Mintel.

Millennials in general have the most interest in blending their restaurant and grocery experiences, Topper said, and samples and specials are the top drivers retailers can use to pull them in. Samples are a natural for supermarkets, she said. For specials, they can try going the daily special route, “taking a page from restaurants.”

While millennials and Americans in general are more open to the idea of getting a prepared meal from their grocery store, they don’t necessarily want the deli prepared section of the store to look like a grocery store, Topper said. Forty-one percent of those polled by Mintel said they’re more likely to shop at a store that offers an “experience.” The prepared foods section, Topper said, “should be purposeful and separate from the rest of the store. It shouldn’t feel like an afterthought.”

Also crucial, she said, is to think about exactly what kind of retail foodservice shopper you’re targeting. Is it the weekly shopper taking a  break from the aisles or the “pop in” customer who wants to get her dinner and go? Those questions could have a big impact on how you lay out your department.

Increasingly, retailers are understanding that — and all of the benefits that come with bringing the restaurant into the grocery store, Topper said. “There are more and more positive associations of foodservice and retail now,” she said. For an increasing number of consumers, “it makes shopping more fun.”