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  • Writer's picturePeter Backman

What's Hot in the USA

Having just returned from my annual trip to Chicago for the National Restaurant Association Show, I thought I’d take the opportunity to share some of my observations:

The general mood was underwhelming compared to previous years and the downbeat feeling has been fuelled mostly by minimal growth. Having said that, those brands that are growing, are doing so fast. Zaxby’s, the 900-strong, mainly franchised chain, is rolling out 50 stores a year, Ruth’s (the steakhouse chain) has 150 stores and continues to grow. The fastest moving brand is Chic-fil-A, a veteran of the US QSR market which is likely to become the third largest brand in the near-term future.

The talking points

The number one issue keeping senior restaurant operator executives awake at night is labour, especially the lack of it, resulting from recent, sometimes capricious, laws on immigrant entry. (Like in the UK, immigrants account for a significant proportion of employees in the foodservice sector.) The result is that the cost of labour in the restaurant sector is rising (and growing faster than the cost of labour in the private sector as a whole).

Delivery, of course, continues to be a hot topic, but it has a different flavour in the US. The term “delivery” only refers to the last mile, whereas in the UK we use it as the whole process from placing the order to delivering the food. “Online” rather than “aggregator” is the preferred term for placing an order. And, dark kitchens are not really a topic for intense discussion in the US – yet.

That was then, this is now

The steam has gone out of food trucks. Three years ago, monster food trucks took pride of place at the exhibition, reflecting what was happening on the streets. This year, there were just a few hidden away.

Gluten-free talk was minimal this year, overtaken by other trends – “plant-based” being the biggest. Sustainability remained, with many of the booths at the Show showcasing wood and bamboo packaging and utensils for food. The lack of focus on allergens suggested that they are not the important issue that they are in the UK.

Costs overshadow innovation

Overall, talk of growth and innovation is over-shadowed by costs and how to contain them. There’s a distinct mood of gradualism, little marketing hype and a “one-step at a time” approach.

If you’d like to read my full ‘What’s Hot in the USA’ report or chat to me about any of the above points, please contact me on 07785 242809 or email on



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