Drinks Catering to Gen Z Steal the Show in Chicago

NRA 2024

CHICAGO – Over 58,000 foodservice professionals from around the world gathered in Chicago’s McCormick Place for the recent National Restaurant Association (NRA) Show. NRA is the largest foodservice show in the Western Hemisphere; owned and operated by Informa in partnership with the National Restaurant Association, this year’s show featured over 2,240 exhibitors.

According to NRA, nine in 10 consumers state that restaurants are a good place to learn about food and beverages that they haven’t tried before. The event’s exhibitors focused on foods, drinks, and equipment designed to help foodservice operators create unique taste experiences. Beyond offering crave-worthy fusion dishes and fun iced beverages, exhibitors offered a wide array of vending machines on the show floor.

Cold, Colorful Beverages Dazzle the Crowd (and Instagram)

Consumers, especially Gen Z, are increasingly looking for colorful cold beverages that are hard to make at home and easy to share on social media. This means that many coffee shops and QSRs are adding cold drinks that are textured and beautiful to behold.

According to Coca-Cola, 32% of consumers are now buying more slushies and shakes compared to two years ago.

The soda company offered a pop-up “frozen experience” featuring a topping station (with toppings from Twang including Chile Lime Salt Topping, Pink Cotton Candy Sugar Topping, and Monin syrups including Blue Cotton Candy and Passion Fruit varieties) and mix-and-match beverage options to show how foodservice operators can appeal to consumers looking for snack-worthy experiences.

PepsiCo showcased its Pepsi Slushie Machine that chills soda bottles into a slushie. The Pepsi Slush Station can hold several bottles. After taking out the bottle, one twists the cap to release the pressure, puts the cap back on, and then flips the bottle or taps it gently, before consuming.

Boba tapioca pearls and popping bobas were plentiful in Chicago, too, as boba teas (Taiwan’s iconic drink of milky tea with chewy tapioca pearls) have moved beyond Asian restaurants into QSRs like Starbucks.

Smarter Vending Machines and More Automated Kiosks Are Coming

There is demand for tastier and healthier foods and beverages for consumers in hospitals, college campuses, and airports who need 24/7 access to tasty food and beverages after restaurants have closed for the day.

On that note, Automated Retail Technologies (ART) showcased its Just Baked Smart Bistro Kiosks. The automated hot food robotic kiosks heat and vend food including White Castle Classic Cheese Sliders, BBQ pork bao, cinnamon rolls, and more, in less than 90 seconds. The kiosk moves the food item from the refrigeration system to the heating system with zero food contact surfaces. ART packages the food in heatable trays, freezes the trays, and delivers the ready-to-load products frozen.

Similarly, Kraft Heinz featured the Primal Kitchen salad vending machine in the micro-market and vending machine section of its booth at the NRA show. The vending machine is a partnership of the company’s Primal Kitchen brand and the Simply Good Jars jarred salads company. The chef-crafted layered salads feature Primal Kitchen’s salad dressings made with avocado oil. The jarred salads are powered by Smart Jar Technology to have a P+14 Day Shelf Life. The jars are made with 100% curbside recyclable packaging.

Additionally, KioSoft, a leader in unattended payments, self-service kiosks, and integrated technology, showcased fully-robotic and self-serve coffee kiosks at the show. The company’s most premium model – KioCafé Kiosk Series 5 makes both hot coffee drinks and iced beverages, offers automatic lid-capping, and the ability to accommodate pre-orders.

Fusion and Global Flavors Continue to Rise

Fermentation was a big trend on the show floor with numerous exhibitors serving kimchi. Wildbrine served up a choice of Korean Style Kimchi or Organic Sauerkraut inside fried chicken sandwiches and Spicy Kimchi Sriracha and Spicy Jalapeno Sriracha.

Seaweed was plentiful at the show, in the form of furikake and kimbap. Both Ocean’s Balance and Chef Meherwan Irani’s award-winning Spicewalla offered up Furikake, a Japanese condiment made with dried nori (seaweed), toasted sesame seeds, dried fish, dried egg, dried herbs, salt that is sprinkled on rice, fish, and vegetables.

Meanwhile, Avocados from Mexico showcased avocado’s versatility in global cuisine through its DIY Guacamole Bar where attendees could customize their own guacamole or choose from options like Cubano Bacon Guac (with bacon and stone ground mustard), or Italian Chile Guac (with Calabrian chili and tear drop peppers). Hormel added an American twist to Brazilian Cheese Bread (Pão de queijo made with cassava flour) by topping them with bacon bits.

Additionally, Grlk founder Peter Chehadeh transformed his Lebanese grandmother’s garlic sauce for grilled chicken into a Lebanese Garlic Spread that can be used to elevate pasta (Fresh Basil variety) and as a dip for vegetables (Chipotle Adobo variety).

Virginia Lee is a food & beverages trendspotter and market researcher. She has advised companies on innovation and market entry opportunities in consumer packaged goods at Euromonitor International, Innova Market Insights, and Brightfield Group. Connect with Virginia on Instagram, TikTok, and X at @VirginiaALee.

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