Takeaways: 2024 National Restaurant Association Show

June 5, 2024 | blog | By Jenna Oliver

The annual National Restaurant Association Show coalesces industry leaders and innovators to discuss the latest trends and challenges in the restaurant business. Our team always finds value in the four-day marathon of industry education – and this year was no different.

Key Takeaway: Back to Basics

This year’s agenda featured a variety of topics, but “back to basics” was the rally cry of the event. While AI, futurist projections, and Gen Z certainly assumed a role in the 2024 Show, the central theme of the discussion was a need for foundational refinement.

As stated by keynote speaker José Andrés, “Sometimes being fresh is remembering where you came from – and focusing on your foundation.”

Back to the “Why”

Consumer behavior is shifting – and the daypart is disappearing. Traditional mealtimes are becoming less defined as people seek convenience and personalized experiences. Restaurants need to adapt by 1) understanding the different occasions for which customers visit and 2) tailoring their offerings accordingly. So, rather than focusing solely on the products you want customers to buy, restaurants should understand and emphasize the customer’s “why” and create experience-based stories around intent.

A great example of experience creation done well is the “girl dinner.” Brands can identify consumer motivations and possible brand connections through social listening, then dig deeper with research to unlock meaningful insights and opportunities.

Back to Your People

Labor is undeniably a hot topic, with many restaurants facing understaffing and high turnover rates. The challenge and opportunity for restaurant owners is to focus first on investing in employees and helping to connect them to the brand’s purpose and leadership. Everything else will follow.

When employees believe in the product and culture, they are more engaged and motivated, which in turn improves the customer experience and increases guest loyalty.

Questions to consider:

  • Do your team members know the leadership? Do they trust you?
  • Do they align with the brand purpose and values?
  • How often do you meet to get to know each other personally? To discuss business and professional goals?
  • Are these meetings two-way conversations? Or top-down instructions?
  • What leadership development opportunities do your team members have?

Building the type of culture that defies labor challenges is no easy feat. But, restaurateurs argue, it should be the number 1 priority. The most important resource in food service is its people.

Perhaps our blueprint for building a transcendent culture might provide some inspiration. Or consider tapping partners for resources: Recognizing the role that leadership development plays in building morale, Coca-Cola® recently launched the Coca-Cola® Leader Lab – a free program available to food service partners.

Back to Your Core Menu

How often are you analyzing your current menu to identify your best and poorest performing items? Which items make up 80% of your sales? Restaurant leaders can menu engineer their way to better profits first by analyzing products with this classic assessment:

  • High popularity, high profit items are your stars. Highlight or place them strategically on your menu. Use caution if making changes. Consider a price increase if people will continue to buy this item anyway.
  • High-popularity, low-profit items are your workhorses. Reduce portion size without compromising perceived value. Negotiate better prices with vendors. Consider alternative ingredients and increase the price if you must.
  • Low-popularity, high-profit items are your puzzles. Relocate these items on your menu to give them more attention. Rename or revamp the recipe. Try a marketing campaign, server campaign, or special. Decrease the price if needed to drive adoption.
  • Low popularity, low profit are your dogs. Sometimes strategic dogs are necessary to support a concept or balance the menu (ex: vegetarian options). Raise the price or consider removing them from the menu.

Once you’ve categorized your stars, workhorses, puzzles, and dogs, utilize menu design best practices to prioritize your high-margin items, and watch profits soar. (Need assistance? We’ve got you covered.)

All this to say, while optimizing your core menu is crucial for profitability, menu innovation is still a critical factor in staying relevant and attracting new customers.

Back to LTO Excellence

Data analysts with Technomic presented “guest-winning menu trends” – from “big & bold” flavors and ideas to plant-based fare, global comfort and controversy (think the “KFC Chizza” and “Starbucks Oleato”). There’s a lot of fun to be had with LTO exploration, but with caution:

First focus on your core equities. Are you best-in-class in your key products? If not, prioritize getting the basics right.
Evaluate opportunities through observation. Are there gaps in your menu categories and flavors that intersect with consumer interests? What are your guests saying they want? Where could you find crossover with current trends?
Seek excitement over just “new.” Is the product truly craveable? If not, keep working on it.
Refine your testing process. How are you evaluating consumer purchase intent and back-end operational ease? Are you testing products with real-life go-to-market planning? Are all the right internal stakeholders on board?
Execute to perfection. Do frontline service members believe in the product? Do they have the time and materials they need to prepare for a successful launch? Are there check-ins and incentives throughout the execution to ensure operational excellence?

Back to the Future

“The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.” – William Gibson

All this talk of “back to basics,” and yet we’d be remiss not to talk about how we look forward to the future. As we summarize our learnings from the 2024 NRA Show, we recap these five tips from food futurist Liz Moskow, who offered careful guidance on where restaurants can go from here:

1. Don’t blindly follow the trends.
2. Challenge assumptions: Innovation might be just around the corner.
3. Explore the “what ifs.” Don’t be afraid to pivot and be willing to reinvent your business if the market demands it.
4. Don’t sit; take action. Action breeds results.
5. Dare to think differently.

JENNA OLIVER is an account director at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency and a top Dallas advertising agency for digital, social, mobile and user experience. For more about challenger branding, advertising, and marketing, leadership, culture, and other inspirations that will drive your success, visit our blog BARK! The Voice of the Underdog and catch up on all of our posts.

For more about LOOMIS, or to discuss how we can help your company succeed, CLICK HERE

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Jenna Oliver

Account Director at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


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