What a long way we’ve come since two guys in California – Roy Allen and Frank Wright – sold root beer in glass mugs for a nickel and called the business A&W. That was 100 years ago.
Soon tray boys provided curbside service, and the culinary theater began, albeit from behind car windshields.
Speed of service and customer conveniences have accelerated exponentially since then, affecting all food outlets and blurring lines of distinction between them.
We fill the gas tank and buy a made-to-order sub sandwich in one swoop. We fill containers with salad and soup at grocery store deli bars. Fast-food outlets go gourmet with exotic spices, menus. Pizza is delivered wherever we’re at, be it at home or a park’s picnic table.
Apps are the beginning of a meal but also what we use to order a meal, or make a restaurant table reservation.
How to decide what and where to eat? Randy Edeker, CEO of Hy-Vee grocery stores, says he got this answer from a female customer who is younger than him: I want you to be what I want you to be when I need you.
You are demanding, unpredictable – and that likely won’t change anytime soon.
Edeker was on a keynote panel at the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago this month. “How quickly can you get what you want,” wondered Dawn Sweeney, the group’s president. “The definition of convenience is changing.”
John Cywinski, president of Applebee’s restaurants, says more foodservice outlets “compete for a share of stomach.” That includes yours.
A part of the fun and awe at the association’s annual trade show is tasting new products and hearing prognosticators reveal the next best thing in cuisine, beverages, flavors and ingredients. Consider what’s already happening with just burgers:
On the Mooyah menu are five types of Lifestyle Burgers that address Paleo, Keto, low-calorie, gluten-free and vegetarian diets.
Sonic Drive-in recently introduced the Signature Slinger, a burger that is 75 percent beef and 25 percent cooked mushrooms. “Blended burgers” like this require fewer environmental resources.
McDonald’s has introduced a vegan burger in Finland and Sweden. The soy-based burger with a secret vegan sauce is generating positive reviews.
Sales of Burger King’s new Impossible Whopper, a plant-based patty, this month expanded into Europe. You should see them throughout the United States before year’s end.
Less meat, less milk and more plant-based food is an ongoing mantra for food producers and outlets. That doesn’t guarantee universal appeal.
A frozen dessert, similar to ice cream but made with almond milk, might taste swell. A pizza crust of ground cauliflower might taste like cardboard.
Just sayin’ … don’t expect consensus about whether we will enjoy or simply tolerate a “hummus shake” made with chickpeas, or oat milk over oatmeal.
One thing is certain: Brainstorming won’t end. A culinary medicine collaboration between Tulane University’s medical school and Johnson and Wales University chef-faculty, for example, began in 2012 and has expanded to involve other institutions.
That’s in part because we seek ingredients purported to contain health benefits. Think collagen powder in a smoothie, with hopes of reducing wrinkles or cellulite. Or turmeric in a latte to reduce inflammation, cinnamon to cut cholesterol, CBD oil (a complicated new additive, worth its own story) to lessen stress.
Ginseng (a marquee product in central Wisconsin) for brain health, apple cider vinegar for detox and complex cocktails with no alcohol are generating a bigger buzz too.
And since savvy mixologists are aware of the value of social media, expect more cocktails that smoke, make noise or change color in front of you. Why? A snap, crackle or pop helps separate the pack via Instagram videos.
The annual National Restaurant Association Show is an all-sensory experience for the foodservice industry. Here’s a sliver of what caught my attention.
Pretzels – Soft and pudgy versions from Milwaukee Pretzel Company resemble authentic Bavarian fare. Known as “bretzels” in Germany, from a couple who aim to make their Old World product as popular as the bagel in New York. milwaukeepretzel.com
Kraut – Cleveland Kraut goes beyond fermented cabbage, producing flavor-enhanced variations. In the mix: curry kraut, whiskey dill kraut, a mix of cabbage and cucumbers, a mix of red cabbage, beets and carrots. The spicy-hot Gnar Gnar is compared to Korean kimchi. In the classic version are caraway seeds. clevelandkraut.com
Jell-O shots – Jevo equipment makes a batch of flavored, spiked, jelled shots in minutes instead of hours. “The Keurig of Jell-O shots” is the way the company bills itself. Step one: Choose a “flavor pod” (orange blossom to appletini), then add alcohol. Download a recipe book for ideas about good combos. getjevo.com
Garbanzo snacks – Chickpea consumption is increasing in the U.S., but not just because of creamy hummus spreads. A popular snack in Spain is roasted, spiced garbanzo beans (and roasted corn kernels). The Churruca brand produces many flavors. churrucamallorca.es
Seafood tricks – That includes protein noodles made with wild Alaskan pollock, from Trident Seafoods, and noodles can be served hot or cold. Tomatoes disguised as sushi were introduced by Ocean Hugger Foods, which dubs itself as “the world’s first plant-based alternative to raw tuna.” tridentseafoods.com, oceanhuggerfoods.com
Faux butter – FabaButter, a plant product, promises to bake, clarify and brown just like the dairy product. It is made with aquafaba, the water in which legumes are cooked. forafoods.com
Detox tea – That’s how the Palais des Thés positions a product line of tea blends whose infusion of ingredients come from around the world. The five teas aim to energize, relax, improve digestion, boost natural defenses or drain impurities from the body. us.palaisdesthes.com