CHICAGO – After spending nearly an entire Sunday walking every aisle at the National Restaurant Association’s annual show, I feel comfortable summarizing the show by five key food trends:

•     Better-for-you school menu options

•     Gelato trumps fro-yo

•     Gluten-free everything

•     Greek food … not necessarily Greek yogurt

•     Sriracha and beyond


Better-for-you school menu options

Some things just do not change at the N.R.A. The line to sample a Chicago-style Vienna Beef hot dog was always at least 25 people long. Eli’s Cheesecake had its usual crowd. The same goes for Coca-Cola, where the personal customization offered by the Freestyle dispenser continues to be a highlight.

Scattered throughout the three halls, there were a number of smaller, and often first-time exhibitors, showcasing better-for-you solutions for school food service. For example, Skeeter Nut Free, Westport, Conn., showcased its line of single-serve bags of 100% whole grain chocolate or cinnamon graham crackers. In addition to meeting the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Smart Snacks in School nutrition standards going into effect July 1, the crackers are 100% nut free.

Diamond Crystal Brands, Savannah, Ga., sampled its Flavor Fresh and House Blend Liquid Portions lines of dressings, sauces and condiments that are low-sodium and trans fatty acid free. The line was developed to help schools provide healthier menus to appeal to kindergarten through grade-12 students.

Wholesome Tummies, Orlando, Fla., is a fresh food franchise concept dedicated to changing the way children eat lunch at school. Serving students in preschool through high school, in schools with and without kitchens, Wholesome Tummies franchisees may be found across the United States.

The company’s R.&D. department has developed better-for-you recipes of favorite foods for children, including macaroni and cheese, chicken tenders, nachos, ranch dressing and chocolate chip cookies.

Many big-name players are trying to offer grade “A” school menu options. For example, the fully cooked Fuse Burger from Hormel Foods Corp., Austin, Minn., melds ground turkey with spinach, brown rice, roasted onions and dried cherries, to deliver a burger with a favorable nutrition profile.


Gelato trumps fro-yo

Unlike past N.R.A. shows where frozen yogurt suppliers were rampant, this year gelato dominated the frozen dairy dessert category. Nearly two dozen gelato companies, either those who sell mix for onsite freezing or finished product ready for serving, sampled innovations.

Al Gelato Inc., Franklin Park, Ill., a 30-plus year old company that was way ahead of its time, showcased not only its ready-to-serve pans and tubs of gelato, but also its line of single-serve, ready-for-dishing gelato truffles. Flavors of the latter include amaretto rolled in almonds, cappuccino dipped in chocolate, white chocolate dipped in white chocolate chips, Italian vanilla dipped in chocolate and praline pecan rolled in pecans and dipped in chocolate.

Alba Gelato by Paciugo, Dallas, is both a franchise gelato and cafe concept as well as a supplier of ready-to-serve gelato. Authentic Italian specialties include Amarena black cherry swirl; Mascarpone, chocolate and rum; and Pannacotta. But the company does not believe gelato is limited to Italian flavors nor sweet flavors, which is apparent with such newer offerings as black pepper olive oil, dulce de leche, Matcha green tea and Mediterranean sea salt caramel.

By far, PreGel America, Concord, N.C., showcased the most innovations in gelato. The latest additions to the company’s product lines represent varying facets of taste and creativity in the dessert world. For example, birthday cake blue is an instant powdered product for the production of gelato that recreates the flavor of birthday cake in a child-friendly blue color. There’s also a new peach tea instant powdered product that allows for a gelato with the thirst-quenching flavor of sweet tea infused with the essence of fresh, ripe peaches.

The real show stopper was the Panini Gelato. This novel concept is basically gelato neatly spooned onto an opened golden sweet bun and layered with a savory or sweet topping. The bun is then pressed together, much like a Panini sandwich. The company supplies the easy-to-use gelato Panini press that allows for customized, assembled on the spot, original frozen desserts. The end result is warm on the outside and cold on the inside. Some of the more popular combinations are almond gelato with pureed fig, coffee gelato with coffee and nut crunch, salted caramel gelato with caramel sauce and custard gelato with lemon cookie crumbles.

Food service fro-yo powerhouse Sugar Creek Foods International Inc., Russellville, Ark., manufacturer of Honey Hill Farms frozen yogurt, recognized the trend in gelato and used the N.R.A. to introduce a soft-serve gelato concept in such flavors as chocolate chip cookie dough, Jamocha, peanut butter fudge, strawberry shortcake and yellow cake batter. The company said it is important for frozen yogurt shops to expand into new soft-serve concepts.

“Over the last few years we have seen a boom in the frozen yogurt business, however, as many areas become over saturated and the newness wears off, the timing was right to offer additional products that complement frozen yogurt, especially in a self-serve environment,” said Scott Van Horn, president.


Gluten-free everything

Without a doubt, the gluten-free trend has arrived in food service. And now, Chicago-style deep-dish pizza lovers who must avoid gluten have their own solution. Kiki’s Gluten Free Foods L.L.C., Arlington Heights, Ill., has developed a frozen, individually packaged to prevent cross contamination, commercial gluten-free deep-dish pizza for the menus of all types of restaurants.

Deya’s Gluten Free, Bronxville, N.Y., offers food service operators a gluten-free flour blend that uses dried egg whites as a key ingredient. It is designed as a one-to-one replacement for traditional flour without the characteristic differences in texture or after-taste, allowing operators to easily make gluten-free versions of flour-based recipes.

Sandwich wraps continue to grow in both quick-serve and grab-and-go channels. Now they may be made using new 12-inch Tumaro’s gluten-free flour tortillas from Blue Marble Brands, Providence, R.I.


Greek food beyond Greek yogurt

Probably the most surprising trend was that of Greek food, most notably gyros meat. It was served on pizza, with scrambled eggs and, of course, in pita bread.

Grecian Delight Foods L.L.C., Elk Grove Village, Ill., showcased its Med Fresh Taverna program that offers operators an array of carriers (bread, buns and bowls), proteins (beef, lamb and chicken), sauces (baba ghanouj, feta spread, hummus, skhug and tzatziki) and toppings (feta crumbles and olives) to let customers design their own Grecian experience.

Kronos Foods Inc., Glendale Heights, Ill., introduced a number of new products, including chicken Shawarma, which brings Mediterranean “street food” directly to food service operations, according to the company. Typically shaved off the cone, Kronos’ chicken Shawarma comes fully cooked and easy-to-use, saving labor and preparation costs by eliminating the need for back of the house preparation. This also translates into less waste. The boneless thigh and breast meat is marinated in a distinctive Mediterranean sauce for a flavorful and authentic taste.

“The demand for Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food products continues to grow and a number of fast-food chains are adding these types of options to their menus to meet this trend,” said Howard Eirinberg, chief executive officer of Kronos Foods. “Our new products will enable the food service industry to incorporate easy-to-use items, while adding versatility to almost any menu.”

Another new product is falafel batter, which is a blend of chickpeas, red peppers and onions. Compared to standard pre-formed falafel balls, the batter allows operators to produce a more flavorful, moist product that allows for customized portioning and control.


Sriracha and beyond

The most predictable trend was that of sricacha being everywhere. It was in condiments, prepared foods and even snack foods. 

Conway Import Co., Franklin Park, Ill., introduced four dressings and sauces featuring the popular hot sauce concept. There’s barbecue sauce, blue cheese dressing, mayonnaise and ranch dressing. Two other newer offerings form the company include a chipotle orange barbecue sauce and pineapple vinaigrette

Bridgewater, Conn.-based The Gracious Gourmet showcased Hatch chile pesto. The new condiment combines green roasted peppers and hatch chiles with garlic, cilantro and onions to round out the Southwestern flavor of this uniquely American take on a Mediterranean classic. Unlike most pesto, this one does not contain cheese or nuts, making it vegan and safe for those with nut or dairy allergies.

American Roland Food Corp., New York, has its own version of sricacha chili sauce, which it says is slightly sweeter and has a better balance of spice than the marketplace’s original. Thinking beyond sricacha, the company is introducing a line of soy glazes in flavors such as lemongrass and ginger. It also has a new harissa hot chili paste and a line of Southeast Asian chili sauces in variants such as garlic and sambal oelek.

Mark your calendar for next year’s N.R.A. Show, which will take place May 16 to 19 in Chicago.