(ARA) -You don't have to be a "foodie" to be aware of restaurant trends. When a particular ingredient or style of preparation is "hot," it will show up on the menus of everything from chain restaurants to fine-dining establishments. So what's hot right now in restaurant trends? And how do those trends evolve?
Pop culture, demographic shifts, and growing "foodie" awareness drive growth and new developments for restaurants. Dining out is one of America's favorite pastimes, and the restaurant industry knows this. Catering to consumer demand was the motivation for the 61,000 industry professionals - from chefs, to restaurant owners, to chain executives - who attended the recent National Restaurant Association (NRA) Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show in Chicago.
From unique flavor combinations, to gluten-free food and beverages, to food trucks, this year's NRA Show showcased the hottest restaurant trends and offered a sneak peek into the industry's future. National Restaurant Association research shows that nine out of 10 restaurant operators say their customers are more knowledgeable about food and beverages than ever before, spurring restaurants to up their game when it comes to menus and customer service.
Top trends that emerged at the show included:
* Healthful alternatives: In response to Americans' growing interest in health and nutrition, nutritious food products are everywhere this year. From all natural yogurt drinks to calorie-free "miracle" noodles, this is a trend that shows no signs of slowing down.
* Premium and artisan products: Targeting the evolving tastes of savvy restaurant customers looking for a unique dining experience, premium products are a clear trend this year. Exhibitors showcased non-traditional flavor combinations -- Pink Guava and Salted Peanut Caramel were attendee favorites, along with customizable offerings and even premium ingredients like high-quality cured Iberico and Serrano pork.
* Gluten-free products: Gluten-free products are making their way into the mainstream market, and the exhibit floor featured a range of such products, from gluten-free pizza dough and gluten-free focaccia to gluten-free ciders.
* Food trucks: Food trucks continue to drive interest, as six in 10 consumers say they would visit a food truck offered by their favorite restaurant.One company that manufactures customized food trucks showcased its services to restaurateurs interested in taking advantage of the food truck trend. Several food trucks also exhibited, looking to expand their franchises.
* Ethnic cuisines and flavors: Responding to consumers' increasingly global palates, the NRA Show's International Cuisine Pavilion was a one-stop-shop for those looking to satisfy international curiosities and cravings. Ethnic offerings ranged from traditional Grilled Pepper Salad from Tunisia to roasted seaweed snacks, a staple of Korean diets for thousands of years.
Dining trends evolve through a vibrant interaction of consumer demand, industry response and the creativity of chefs. As the dining public continues to focus on great food and a quality experience, the industry will react to ensure restaurant offerings please the discerning palates of their guests.