National Restaurant Show

By Jodie Jacobs

Maybe there should be a “Beware” sign that warns: the National Restaurant Show could be bad for the diet, raise the blood sugar and leave you yearning to try more, more and more.

At the 2015 NRA show more than 2,000 exhibitors filled three buildings at Chicago’s McCormick Place with cool gadgets and more than enough treats to have its 44,000 attendees feeling like kids in the proverbial candy store.

Passing up all the nibbles was a challenge but resisting samples of everything from breakfast sandwiches, breads and burritos to candies, cakes and flavored coffees, left room for taste-testing some of the ‘in” specialty items in the “Alternative Bite/Style” and “Organic and Natural” aisles.

Among the standouts was Conte’s yummy, gluten-free, butternut squash ravioli, from New Jersey based Conte’s Pasta. Better than similar products at the show, Conte’s ravioli had the perfect texture and flavor.

There were lots of sauces but among the best was Miso Master’s delicious Organic Pesto, Thai and Maple products made for North Carolina’s Great Eastern Sun Company.

The Miso sauces probably would have paired well with Gardein’s seven grain chicken tenders or any of this B.C. Canadian company’s fool-the-palate chicken, fish and beef taste-like dishes made of vegetables, grains and herbs.

In the dessert category, it was hard to believe that the airy chocolate cupcakes by Toronto-based Weston Foods were gluten-free.

If the booth were not so close to the building’s central corridor as to make it an easy to-go item, it would have gone well with the just slurped, new caramel and fig gelato concoction from Arkansas based Sugar Creek-Honey Hill Farms.

Tea is still big. At Numi Organic Tea, Oakland, CA, Laura Benvenuto and Erin O’Hara were introducing the company’s new Nspire line. The product is whole-leaf tea that comes in hand-sewn cotton sachets. “Cotton mesh was how tea was originally steeped,” O’Hara said. What was good to hear about Numi’s products was that everything, including the chocolate used in a tea, was real and not flavoring.

Real, fresh and healthy, are the trend, according to Mintel senior Foodservice analyst Julia Gallo-Torres who was walking the show answering questions. Asked about gourmet dining, Gallo-Torres said, “Fresh and unique ingredients make it gourmet.” She added, “White cloth is out, casual and healthy are in.”

By the way, when demonstrators of specialty products were asked where consumers can find them, the reply was usually Whole Foods.