Report on the National Restaurant Association show

Want to gaze into a crystal ball for a sneak peek of future trends in the food and beverage industries? Then read this insider's report of the 90th National Restaurant Association's Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show held in Chicago. Strawberry Balsamic Vinegar gelato, anyone?

Our company’s CEO, Randy White, spent 2.5 days at the 90th National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show in Chicago May 16-19. Due to the tough economy, attendance was down 25% from 71,000 in 2008 to 54,000 this year. There were also fewer trade exhibitors with this year’s show, 1,800 compared to 2,200 last year, filling the large hall and one smaller hall, compared to one large and two smaller halls last year. Yet, there was plenty to see. In a sense, the show is an endless smorgasbord of food sampling from a multitude of food distributors and vendors. The one thing I missed was the Sweet Street Desserts’ traditional jazz band from previous years. Sweet Street Desserts was there with all its decadent dessert samples, but due to the economy, I guess, the jazz band budget got chopped.

In terms of the number of exhibitors, the show is larger than the annual IAAPA show. It takes at least two days to walk the aisles, even if you don’t spend much time at many booths.

The restaurant franchise section had the largest decrease in exhibitors. With financing so difficult in today’s economy, it’s hard to sell franchises. The largest increase in exhibitors appeared to be vendors featuring natural, organic and/or sustainable products. The Natural & Organic Pavilion aisle was constantly busy and as packed as most any area at the show. I lost count of all the suppliers with “green” sustainable and compostable packaging. Gelato appears to be a major food trend, with 22 gelato suppliers. The gelato flavors are getting more creative. I tried Strawberry Balsamic Vinegar, Mediterranean Sea Salt Carmel and Black Pepper and Olive, among many other unusual flavors. As weird as they may sound, they all had very subtle flavors and were quite good. There also appeared to be an increase in Asian and gluten-free food suppliers compared to 2008. There were a large number of suppliers exhibiting electric imitation flame candles, as well.

The most popular exhibitor was Budweiser, with free beer samples poured in substantial portions. That booth was constantly packed.

A large amount of new restaurant equipment was shown. POPCAKE is claimed to be the world’s first automated pancake-making machine. Smaller than a microwave, the POPCAKE machine cooks piping hot, 97% fat-free hotcakes at the press of a button -- without the use of fats or oils. The mix of varieties ranges from sweet, buckwheat and gluten-free in addition to an assortment of savory mixes with real fruit toppings. There’s a video of the machine in action on the manufacturer’s website.

Somat showed its new eCorect Waste Reducer that cuts food waste by 90% by turning it into a high-quality organic soil amendment (a polite way to say compost) in less than 24 hours. Watch this video to learn more.

Electronics are continuing to evolve to serve the restaurant industry. A number of exhibitors showed cell phone texting systems to let customers know when their tables are ready.

Slideshow of scenes from the NRA Show

The show also offered some new seminars:

  • Aquaculture and sustainable seafood
  • Gluten-free on the menu
  • Improving children’s menus
  • The state of school nutrition

and quite a few others on green and sustainable issues.

Anyone visiting the show definitely came away with the understanding that green, sustainable, natural and organic are major trends in the industry. All told, the show is not something to be missed by anyone in the business of serving food and beverages.