Foodservice Scoop: Notable Nuggets from NRA Show 2023

Recapping the top thoughts and themes coming out of The National Restaurant Association (NRA) Show in Chicago

PUBLISHED: 6/6/2023

For seemingly every member of the restaurant and foodservice industry, The National Restaurant Association (NRA) Show has become a must-attend event. Considered the largest gathering of foodservice professionals in the Western Hemisphere, the NRA Show annually showcases the latest in foodservice innovation and inspiration.

The MERGE team was on-site for the four-day event, participating in the industry-leading conversation, engaging with industry thought leaders and experts, and taking note of the most compelling trends and advancements coming out of Chicago.

The effort to build and maintain customer loyalty remains top of mind

The goal for any business is to not only attract customers, but to earn their loyalty in order to secure them as recurring patrons and even brand advocates. With that, it comes as no surprise that customer loyalty was a prevailing theme throughout the multi-day event at McCormick Place in Chicago.

Nathan Casey, the Vice President of Digital Marketing, Engagement and Experiences at IHOP, spoke at length about how the goal of loyalty programs should be to build relationships with your core customers, and shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as a tool for acquisition. For Casey, owning and nurturing the relationship with customers is paramount. Brands who are able to provide a “richness” of customer benefits are typically the ones who succeed in earning customer loyalty, citing Starbucks and Domino’s Pizza as two brands with “premier” restaurant loyalty programs.

The era of robots and automation has arrived

With tech - and artificial intelligence (AI) in particular - becoming more and more intertwined with the way we consume products and goods, more and more restaurant brands are taking steps to implement systems that cater to these rapidly evolving consumer habits. George Hanson, the Chief Digital Officer at Panera Bread, called digital integration the “tip of the spear” for guest experience at Panera. 

Through Panera’s partnership with Amazon One, Hanson says customers can enjoy a frictionless, personalized experience that requires a simple palm print to pay for anything in store, with all customer data stored in the cloud. Hanson says sign up takes less than a minute and can occur at a variety of locations, including Panera and Whole Foods. It may not come as a shock to many either that this level of tech implementation has positively impacted customer loyalty, as Panera boasts 52 million members in their MyPanera loyalty program, with 55 percent of sales coming from said program.

Perhaps the buzziest item coming out of NRA Show 2023 was the announced partnership between PopMenu and OpenAI, which aims to use ChatGPT to automatically suggest, schedule, and write digital marketing campaigns. In short, PopMenu will be able to input key data such as guest behavior, order history, and marketing campaign performance into ChatGPT, which will in turn use AI to render suggested content that can be sent to customers and potential customers.

Plant-based foods are here to stay

Brands operating in the plant-based space were well represented at NRA Show 2023, as by our unofficial count, roughly one third of vendors in the exhibit hall had plant-based offerings. The rising demand for plant-based foods has been attributed to the emerging tastes of young consumers, who have demonstrated a growing curiosity for plant-based products, driven primarily by a desire for healthier choices and eco-conscious alternatives. 

Of course, some challenges remain, such as price sensitivity among part-time vegetarians or “flexitarians” and the impact of inflation on plant-based products. However, despite these hurdles, there is burgeoning optimism for the plant-based industry, as many brands are beginning to maneuver in order to seize an opportunity to ride this wave of consumer enthusiasm.

The Wrap

From plant-based movements to tech-driven dining experiences, NRA Show 2023 proved once again to be a rich reserve relating to the latest trends occurring in the foodservice industry. As a result, the MERGE team came away armed with valuable insights from industry leaders, absorbing and uncovering key factors focused on driving restaurant brands forward. 

Hungry for success? Connect with MERGE's team of seasoned marketing professionals to help take your foodservice brand to new heights!