Nancy, I have two words for you: arch support.

Actually, I’m afraid I didn’t notice your shoes when we were in Chicago together, so maybe you had plenty of arch support. But shoes that get along well with your feet are crucial at the NRA show. So is time management: I now strategize the show by only going to those parties that I have to go to (NRN’s own MenuMasters party, for example) and focusing on the parts of the show floor that will help me spot food and beverage trends, because that’s my job.

So I didn’t make it to Startup Alley or the Tech Pavilion—and therefore appreciate your report on what was going on there—and was quick to decline offers to be taken through the features of the latest POS system or scheduling software. Interesting, sure, but there’s a lot of ground to cover at the NRA show.

I’ve also had the good fortune for the past two years to be a judge for the FABI awards, which honor food and beverage items from exhibitors that we deem to be unique and awesome. It gives me an advance look at several dozen products that are going to be on display.

Among my favorites were Atalanta Corporation’s Peruvian sauces, including spicy but complex aji rocoto sauce, and the classic huancaina that is my favorite condiment for potatoes.

The USDA Prime smoked beef brisket by Wagshal’s Imports was also a big hit.

Those speak to a couple of broader trends—Latin cooking and premium meats. I honestly expected to see more Peruvian products at the show, but I didn’t. There certainly was plenty of other Latin American food, however, including several purveyors of that north-of-the-border specialty from New Mexico, Hatch green chile. I also saw a wide variety of Mexican cheeses, from cotija to Chihuahua, at both the California and Wisconsin dairy pavilions.

There was also plenty of premium meat on display, including Fermin’s amazing Spanish hams and the wares of Creminelli Fine Meats, such as additive-free sausages made with “just meat, salt and time,” as they told me.

Not that there’s anything wrong with additives, per se. Heck, I like nitrates because they help prevent botulism, which I hate.

Nonetheless clean labels are definitely a big trend, and there were plenty of exhibitors at the show touting what wasn’t in their food. Nancy, you noted the boom in gluten-free items, and I bet you also noticed how proud many exhibitors were of other things they didn’t use, from those life-saving nitrates to high-fructose corn syrup to the suddenly dreaded artificial color.

We have an obesity epidemic and people are worried about artificial color.

All-natural sodas were on display big time, including plenty of lower-calorie, more complex tasting adult sodas, and the Blue Sky and Stubborn soda brands rolled out to foodservice by The Coca-Cola Company and Pepsico, respectively, in the past year.

Also in the sparkling beverage category were two companies—B. W. Cooper and Teafinity—with concentrated teas intended for carbonation and ready for use at soda fountains, where consumption of traditional carbonated soft drinks have been on the decline for years although Coke reported a 1 percent uptick in CSD sales in 2015.

For every trend there’s a counter-trend, and so just as there were more gluten-free items, there were also a ton of noodles. Some of them were gluten-free, sure, but there was plenty of straight-up pasta, now in more ready-to-use forms, like the fresh ones stored in resealable bags by O Sole Mio, or Twin Marquis’ ramen, also fresh and sealed in plastic and a far cry from the dorm room staple.

That company also had glutinous udon noodles, and naturally gluten free soba.

Manicaretti Inc., won a FABI for its dry pasta that cooks in 90 seconds.

Another counter-trend: Pure looking simple foods with clean labels were balanced by foods with things added to them. They were mostly natural flavors, such as salami “infused” (their words) with Absinthe and Hatch green chile (there it is again!) by Zoe’s Meats. I was kind of taken aback by the ingredients, such as toffee and sea salt and mint chips, added to the chocolate of Tcho, a company that once was so intent on the purity of its dark chocolate that it took it years to offer milk chocolate.

There was banana bread-flavored beer, bacon-and-rosemary flavored vodka, and cheese flavored with ingredients ranging from red wine and garden vegetables to Buffalo flavoring and bacon.

At the Bar show, practically everything was “artisanal,” even if they wouldn’t have said so ten years ago. Jägermeister, an icon for young drinkers looking to do multiple shots, was promoting its family ownership and craftsmanship.

Spirit Hound Gin, a craft distillery from Lyons, Colorado, is so artisanal that it uses local juniper berries foraged by its customers, who provide it in trade for free drinks.

Obscure was a plus, too, according to the exhibitors for whiskey marketer A Hardy. They said Glen Scotia from the lesser-known Scotch area of Campbelltown, was the star of their booth.

There was more to see, of course, and I’m full and tired thinking about it again. I think next year you and I need to take a bit of a break mid-show to sample more of what was on offer at the Bar show.

Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta and a regular contributor to Nation’s Restaurant News.

E-mail her at [email protected]

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary