“The state of our industry is thriving again,” said Michelle Korsmo, chief operating officer of the National Restaurant Association, Washington, during the keynote address at the association’s annual show held May 20-23 in Chicago. “The future belongs to the innovators and early adopters.”

From drones that deliver, robots that serve food and touch pads to customize meals, the US foodservice industry is starting to resemble the 1960’s animated space-age cartoon, the Jetsons. And, according to Ms. Korsmo, there’s no going back to the way things were before the pandemic. The industry is different and those who change with it will succeed.  

That’s what the estimated 57,000 attendees at The NRA Show set out to do when they explored the more than 11 football fields worth of exhibit space featuring 2,100 suppliers to the foodservice industry. Many promoted solutions to ease the burden of hard-to-find labor that is prevalent throughout the industry. Efforts to reduce labor extended throughout the show, including in a range of heat-and-eat foods, as well as condiments and toppings to offer customization options.

Impossible Foods, Redwood City, Calif., now offers fully cooked burger patties for quick-service, school lunchrooms and institutional settings. The Hillshire Brands Co., Chicago, a Tyson Foods brand, debuted fully-cooked Hillshire Farm Carved Pork Belly, which comes in 5-lb bags. Two Rivers Meat Co., North Vancouver, BC, Canada, now offers “restaurant ready” marble-enriched beef that is sliced, diced and cut thin. The intent is to remove the need for inhouse marinading and tenderizing, as well as provide a consistent dining experience.  

The Kraft Heinz Co.’s foodservice or “Away From Home” (AFH) division, with offices in Pittsburgh, had been absent or had had a very low profile at the restaurant show over the past decade. This year, the company had a dominant presence in multiple halls.

“We are a different company these days,” said Alan Kleinerman, vice president of disruption, when discussing the company’s new robotic sauce dispenser that allows consumers to personalize their own flavor creations. Developed in six months from initial brief to the physical product the machine was on display at the show and commercialization will allow placement in foodservice by the end of the year.

The sauce dispenser allows consumers to create their own sauce, with more than 200 possible combinations. The free-standing machine is touchscreen operated, enabling consumers to first select from a range of “bases” — currently Heinz-brand ketchup, ranch, 57 Sauce and barbecue sauce — then personalize further with one or more “enhancers” — currently jalapeño, smoky chipotle, Buffalo and mango — at their preferred intensity level (low, medium or high).

“As a company, we’re transforming through innovation by making bigger, more intentional bets to fuel our growth and create new experiences for consumers,” Mr. Kleinerman said. “Heinz Remix is a great example of this consumer-first approach to innovation. We’re changing the game for foodservice operators and sauce lovers. Dipping will never be the same.”

Labor savings also were present in the forms of robotics, many powered by artificial intelligence. The new concepts came in the form of ordering kiosks, food preparation and cooking, and even delivery robots.

“Technology is assisting with job satisfaction,” said David Henkes, senior principal, Technomic Inc., Chicago. “No one wants to be the ‘(french) fry guy.’ Technology is taking away mundane positions through automation.”

Atosa USA Inc., Brea, Calif., showcased its intelligent french fry robotic solution that includes a refrigerated or frozen hopper/dispenser, robotic arm, fryer battery with filtration, ventless hood with fire suppression and dump station.

Vernon, Ill.-based Convotherm debuted an AI-powered, fully automated combination oven, cooking and baking system. The system “sees” what the operator is loading and initiates a cooking program to produce it while simultaneously managing the entire cooking cavity for consistent results.

Then there’s Cecilia, an interactive robot bartender that not only mixes drinks but will tell a joke and even make a beverage suggestion based on your verbalized preferences. The system is making its debut at sporting stadiums and airport lounges.

Meatless menu items remain on trend

After labor, the next biggest talking point at this year’s NRA Show was plant-based, specifically non-meat proteins. At last year’s show, the products were focused more on health and wellness.

“Now it is sustainability messaging,” Mr. Henkes said. “(For most operators), it’s just another protein option on the menu. Restaurants need to have meatless options on the menu, even if they are not the biggest sellers.”

He said the space is evolving into plant-forward foods, where a fruit or vegetable is the star of the dish. Fruits and vegetables also are appearing in unlikely places, like broccoli pizza crust or artichoke patties.

“It’s all about being less processed with fewer additives,” said Marcus Viscidi, vice president of enterprise sales for the NRA Show.

He provided the example of the plant-based salmon and tuna from Current Foods, San Francisco. Every ingredient comes from the earth with no artificial ingredients, allergens or microplastics. Current Foods uses peas for protein, algae oil for taste and omega-3 fatty acids, radish and tomato for color, and potato and bamboo for texture.

Lizzy Freier, director-menu research and insights at Technomic, agreed that “lots of fruits and vegetables are taking the place of meat in dishes.” For 2022, Ms. Freier predicted that it would be the year of cauliflower.

“This year, there’s two that are trending, tomatoes and corn,” she said in a menu trends presentation.

Applications include creative uses of powdered and pickled tomatoes, in sweet and savory starters and desserts. And street corn — elote — may be a savory garnish on pancakes or part of a swizzle stick in a “swicy” (sweet and spicy) specialty cocktail.

Another menu trend that cannot be ignored is “loaded,” said Ms. Freier. While varied forms of potatoes tend to be the most common delivery vehicle of melted cheese, ranch dressing, crispy bacon bits, chives, and whatever else imaginable, the loaded concept is showing up during all day parts, on top of french toast, a flatbread and even a burger.

“It’s all about going above and beyond,” Ms. Freier said.