At last month’s National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago, 2,168 exhibiting companies — a 4.3% increase over last year — showcased their products to more than 61,000 attendees. Some trends from last year’s show returned bigger than ever, including gluten-free items and health-focused beverages. Here is a look at three trends that dominated this year’s show.

Locavore movement grows with in-house produce operations

Locally grown produce was the second most popular trend named by chefs in NRA’s 2014 What’s Hot Culinary Forecast, and the local produce movement was well represented at this year’s show. Attendees could sign up for a tour of McCormick Place‘s very own rooftop garden, which will provide about 6,000 pounds of produce to the convention center’s two Green Seal-certified restaurants this year. McCormick’s foodservice provider, Savor, works with the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Windy City Harvest to tend and harvest the herbs, lettuces and vegetables grown on the rooftop.”We work with the chefs to make sure everything can be utilized,” Windy City’s Angie Mason said. (read more…)

The Food and Drug Administration released proposed regulations for menu labeling in 2011, and final rules are anticipated later this year, Dan Roehl, NRA’s vice president of government relations, said during a menu labeling panel at the NRA show Saturday. Roehl and his fellow panelists — Healthy Dining Culinary Dietician Rachel Rothman and Darden Health & Wellness Director Cheryl Dolven — shared tips and best practices for restaurant operators who will need to add nutrition information to their menus.

Restaurant chains with 20 or more locations will be required to list calorie counts on menus and have additional nutrition information, such as fat and sodium content, available to customers who ask for it. The FDA commissioner anticipates that restaurants will have one year to comply once it releases final regulations, Roehl said, but the panelists agreed that starting to prepare now is the best way for restaurant operators to ensure they meet the deadline. (read more…)

Fast Casual continues to evolve, making the concept a moving target for restaurateurs who are trying to succeed in the market that accounted for 15% of all limited service restaurant sales in 2013, according to the “Top 150 Fast-Casual Chain Restaurant Report” from Technomic. A panel discussion presented Saturday by NRA’s Fast Casual Industry Council at the 95th annual NRA Show featured three executives from concepts that have managed to get it right and grow their business along with their brand reputation.

Although they work for operations ranging in size from six units to more than 750 units, the executives from WOW BAO, Rubio’s and Firehouse of America all agreed that a few key objectives hold the key to success for the future of fast casual. Regardless of size, location or concept, fast casual operators can’t ignore the growing demand for healthy options, the importance of technology and the role that company culture plays in building an engaging and lasting brand. (read more…)

Like most grocery stores, Sprouts Farmers Market offers discounts and promotions to its customers through several channels including e-mails and online coupons. But thanks to new data Sprouts is acquiring through a partnership with analytics provider Manthan Systems, the grocer is launching a new loyalty program based on customer analytics, which provides the company with specific data about its shoppers and their behaviors, Sprouts Chief Information and Marketing Officer Steve Black said during a Big !deas session at NRF‘s BIG Show in New York City on Monday. The new program will transition from one that is based on data about items to one that integrates both customer analytics and item data, giving Sprouts a better picture of who its best customers are and how to best engage with those who fall into its target market, he said.

“Every single experience of every single customer is important every single day,” which is why Sprouts hopes to improve the customer experience through the new program, Black said. (read more…)

iStock_000018376546XSmallPerennially popular Racines restaurant in Denver will close before midnight on New Year’s Eve, serving dinner and wrapping things up in plenty of time for patrons and workers to head downtown to see the annual midnight fireworks, owner Lee Goodfriend said.

Meanwhile, 2,000 miles east, TGI Friday’s in New York City’s Times Square will be offering a “Couples Champagne VIP Package” for $1,095, catering to revelers looking to get as close as possible to the ball drop, as the Wall Street Journal reported.

More than a million people are expected to crowd Times Square tonight, while there are only about 60,000 restaurant and bar seats, making the night a big celebration for eateries that can charge hundreds per head for meals including a $100 unlimited-pizza-and-beer party at Artichoke Basille’s and a $595 spaghetti dinner at Buca di Beppo, the Journal reports.

Eateries in the square aren’t the only Manhattan spots going all out on the eve, although those farther from the center of the action may have to try a little harder. (read more…)