The month of May and the restaurant industry’s premier event are inextricably linked. This year’s National Restaurant Association Show runs from May 20–23. If you only manage to break free for one industry experience in 2023, this is the one to have on your calendar. If you want to see the latest and greatest that the industry has to offer, Chicago is the place to be.
When you walk the show floor, you’ll have the opportunity to look at our industry from every angle. If you attend with specific interests in mind, such as discovering options for a particular menu ingredient or sourcing a new piece of equipment, odds are you are going to find something of interest. Sure, you can browse websites to your heart’s content from the comfort of home, but at least for this restaurant veteran, being able to engage all your senses trumps the internet. Suppliers will be eager to hear about the challenges you have in your business or the opportunities you are attempting to exploit. They won’t hesitate to sow seeds for how they can help you achieve your goals.
Even if you aren’t in search of specific solutions, you should still attend and simply walk the floor for the sake of discovery. It’s the single best place to find innovation on display. Conversation with vendors may unveil opportunities for your business that you didn’t even know existed prior to the show.
Innovation is not a word commonly associated with restaurants. I think most would agree that the industry has had a reputation for being slow to develop or adopt new technology. It’s not that we aren’t a creative bunch; just look at our ideation around cuisine. On that front, there is a never-ending stream of experimentation by chefs that perpetually test the public’s threshold for embracing new flavors and textures. If there is a limit placed on creativity, it is not on the part of the food artist, but rather, the culinary proclivities of patrons.
While we may excel at creating new menu items that appeal to the palate, our collective penchant for invention hasn’t often extended into the realm of technology. Other than perhaps the basic concept of the drive-thru (which is far from inconsequential, by the way), I’m hard pressed to think of an invention that was birthed by the restaurant industry and then adopted in an impactful way by our broader society. Even when it comes to repurposing technology born in other corners of the economy, we have earned a reputation as laggards.
Is this reputation deserved in 2023? Perhaps, but increasingly, this is more a matter of perception than reality. Embracing digital interaction with the guest is the most salient arena for the industry’s adoption of new technology. While much of this involves work on the customer-facing side of technology, applications behind the counter and in the kitchen are increasing. The forecasting of demand and queuing of production are front in center of the needs of our industry. Any slowness in adopting solutions on this front is not a matter of lack of desire to do so, but rather, the inherent difficulty in inventing a solution that adequately addresses the challenge. In many respects, operating a restaurant day-to-day is more difficult than a lot of other businesses. The flow and complexity of our business is greater than most. Indeed, using robotics to build a car that is comprised of finite components with tight, absolute specifications can be easier than trying to build a hamburger.
When we arrive in Chicago and walk the showroom floor, we see the diversity of suppliers and thought leadership serving our industry. It is here that I see increasing evidence of a more innovative approach to our business. The degree of innovation on display at the show has, in my opinion, increased in recent years. Chances have grown with each passing year that you will see something at the show that makes you say “wow.” This applies to the largest brands just as much as it does to the independent operator. Committing quality time to traverse every aisle can take the place of many days of scouring the world in search of ideas and partners. And of course, bring your appetite. You’ll have the chance to sample more food than you could ever imagine.
The agenda for the show increasingly leans into thought leadership, and anyone who doesn’t build the education sessions and various presentations into their agenda will not gain the full value that the show has to offer. A variety of industry events take place throughout the city; the energy of the show extends well outside of the convention space. I have many fond memories of events hosted by the National Restaurant Association, International Food Manufacturer’s Association (how can I ever forget receiving their Silver Plate Award?), trade publications such as QSR, and many suppliers to the industry. It is well worth your time to study the agenda in advance and plan your time accordingly.
The main reason I look forward to the show, however, is the opportunity to interact with my friends and peers. One of the most common questions among industry friends come the spring of each year is, “are you going to be in Chicago?” It is the place to connect. If we have longed to see a friend from the industry, chances are, this is the time and place we are going to catch up.
I hope that this year’s show is the best and most attended ever. While there is much handwringing over the economic climate, this isn’t a time to retreat. I’m a big believer in our best days always being ahead of us; planning for the alternative is a self-fulfilling path to decline. If you are looking for an injection of optimism and inspiration, I know exactly where you will find it. See you in Chicago!
Don Fox is Chairman of Firehouse Subs, where he supports President Mike Hancock and the rest of the brand. A restaurant industry veteran of 50 years, Fox has spent two decades at Firehouse Subs, including serving as president and CEO from 2009 to 2023. Under his leadership, the restaurant brand grew to more than 1,245 restaurants in 46 states, Puerto Rico and Canada, and is recognized as one of the best franchises in the country. Prior to his time at Firehouse Subs, Fox worked for sister brand Burger King for 23 years. Fox sits on various boards in the business and non-profit communities, including Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation and National Restaurant Association. Named Operator of the Year by Nation’s Restaurant News in 2011, Fox joined a long list of restaurant luminaries. He was also ranked No. 1 on FastCasual.com’s 2013 Top 100 Movers & Shakers list, receiving the prestigious Silver Plate award from the International Food Manufacturers Association.