The annual National Restaurant Association Show was canceled last month due to COVID-19, but judging for its 2020 FABI (Food and Beverage Innovations) Awards had already taken place. As one of nine industry judges asked to taste and evaluate this year’s entries, I sampled over 90 products spanning a wide range of flavors, ingredients and eating occasions. Although 29 winners rose to the top, all of the entries shared some common threads. Here are five trends that came out of the FABI judging.
1. New takes on plant-based proteins
Burgers made of meat analogs were popular at the 2019 National Restaurant Association Show, but suppliers are taking this trend a few steps further. The big names—Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods—each earned an award for a new breakfast sausage, and Impossible also launched an award-worthy bulk ground pork product.
But smaller players also gained recognition for their plant-based entries. All the winners were well-seasoned and once cooked, the taste and texture closely resembled their counterparts made from animal protein. Falafel patties and crabless crab cakes were two of the standouts.
2. Dairy-free dairy
Also falling under the overall plant-based trend were several vegan milks and cheeses, as well as a couple of dessert items. Oatmilk draft latte is a simple blend of oat milk and cold brew coffee that comes in a handy ready-to-drink format. Elmhurst, a company known for its dairy milk products, introduced three plant-based milks—hemp, oat and almond—targeted to coffee drinkers under its Barista Editions line. And a judge’s favorite was the vegan ice cream from Eclipse: Creamy in texture and very natural tasting, ice cream fanatics could easily think it’s the real thing.
3. Satisfying snackers
Several manufacturers jumped on the snacking trend with both healthy and indulgent products to satisfy cravings any time of day. Chocolate hummus, a blend of cocoa powder with chickpeas, tahini, sugar and vanilla, is a readymade version of the from-scratch item popular in K-12 foodservice. On the more indulgent side, Strawberry Cheesecake Cubies garnered attention, as did soft pretzel fries. And for all-day breakfast snackers, mini maple pancakes paired with maple sausage bites in convenient to-go packaging was a top pick.
4. Healthier spins on favorites
Foods and beverages with a better-for-you message were among FABI winners. At the 2019 Show, cauliflower pizza crusts were exhibited by several companies; this year, chicken tenders featuring a crisp, gluten-free cauliflower coating earned a FABI. Also in the gluten-free category is Zoe’s Crush Manifesto Cookie, a sweet-savory treat composed of toasted sesame seeds, almonds, toffee, chocolate, ginger and a touch of miso. And ready-to-use, sliced and grilled fresh carrots with Mediterranean seasonings appealed to judges as a handy option for operators to enhance veggie-forward menus.
Winning beverages also took on a health halo. A sparkling drink made with the Japanese citrus fruit yuzu offers a refreshing alternative to sugary soft drinks, as does cold brew iced tea formulated to be slightly sweet or unsweetened. Both these ready-to-drink beverages focus on flavor rather than sugar.
5. Global convenience items
For operators who wish to easily expand the menu with more global flavors, several low-labor products are on the mark. Mama LA’s vegetable pho broth concentrate creates authentic Vietnamese pho that can be customized with a selection of vegetables and garnishes. For those looking to add a Korean accent to bowls and wraps, sliced Korean barbecue beef can do the trick. The winning product features pieces of beef marinated in a sweet-spicy mixture typical of that cuisine, then flame-broiled to heat and serve.
Beverages with ethnic origins were also among the entries. Winning an award was Miss Mary’s Paloma Mix, a bottled product that creates a fresh-tasting base for Mexico’s signature grapefruit-centered cocktail.