Each spring, thousands of suppliers and operators gather in Chicago to showcase new wares and services while networking for four days at the annual National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show (NRA Show), now in its 94th year. This year, optimism about the state of the industry and improving economy was palpable as more than 62,500 registrants from 100 countries, flocked to The Windy City’s McCormick Place.
In addition to attracting 2,500 more attendees than the previous year, the show saw 10 per cent more registrations from the lodging sector, and hosted more than 2,100 exhibitors, including 68 Canadian suppliers, up from 46 last year. And, for the first time since the recession, the show expanded into a 57,550-sq.-ft. exhibition hall, packed with 433 exhibitors. “[The hall] had not [housed the NRA Show] since the recession first started, so it really [pointed] to the restaurant industry continuing that uptick,” raved Derrek J. Hull, industry communications and relations manager, NRA Show.
The show’s hall was home to the Alternative BiteStyle pavilion, dedicated to products catering to various dietary restrictions, such as gluten-free and low sodium diets. And, a National Foundation for Celiac Awareness booth was a resource for operators interested in adding more special dietary options to their menus. Children’s meals also took the spotlight, with products such as gluten-free pancakes, powdered peanut butter and fruit purée juices. New smartphone-based technology, such as the Ecoview: Energy Management System, was another draw. The app allows operators to manage energy savings by controlling HVAC through their smartphone.
And, as operators turn their attention to eco-conscious and socially responsible practices, Starbucks’ president and CEO, Howard Schultz, drew a crowd at the show with a special keynote speech on how to balance the two trends while netting profit. Show attendees also had access to 83 educational seminars and presentations from big-name chefs, such as Anthony Bourdain and Chopped judge Maneet Chauhan.
Meanwhile, the industry toasted outstanding operators at the second-annual Operator Innovations Awards, which recognized Kennesaw State University as Innovator of the Year for its closed-loop waste-management program; the United States’ Air Force for its food-transformation initiative and Ninety Nine Restaurants, for its food-allergy alert system, which minimizes risk allergens via ordering, display systems and tracking.
Next year, the show is expected to grow when organizers nearly double the size of its companion International Wine, Spirits & Beer Event and move it to a bigger location within the exhibition. “We’re going to need a bigger boat,” says Hull.