As I write this, the National Restaurant Association Show 2022 is still in front of us (May 21–24). It will have been a very long three years since the restaurant community last came together for this event, and as the gathering draws closer, I suspect I am not alone in savoring the opportunity to be with my peers. Food may be the defining element of a restaurant, but people are the added ingredient that make it all work. The relationship between people and restaurants is akin to yeast and baking. The analogy needs no elaboration for this audience!
I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been to Chicago for the show. Now in my 10th year on the board of directors for the National Restaurant Association, traveling to the Windy City during the month of May is a much-anticipated ritual. You can bet that as soon as I make my connecting flight in Atlanta, I’ll likely cross paths with peers making their own sojourn north.
Once I hit the airport in Chicago (I’ll put aside the merits of O’Hare or Midway, which could be a blog in and of itself), the odds escalate for pressing the flesh. (Note to self: use of that phrase is a good sign of a pandemic in retreat!). And so it will go as I travel into the city and arrive at the hotel. After three long years, each and every encounter will be embraced in a way not experienced before. After all, we had never before been forced into isolation by a pandemic. And after three long years, the opportunity for being with our industry peers—so many of them being much more than mere acquaintances—is something that we will never take for granted.
Being at the show is always a reminder of the depth and breadth of our industry. Restaurant and foodservice companies collectively employed 14.5 million people at the start of 2022 (a figure still well below the 15.4 million employed before the pandemic). When we think of the restaurant business and the people that comprise it, the front-line and back-of-the-house team members come to mind first. They are the “yeast” that gives rise to the preparation and serving of great food.
I wish that each one of them had the opportunity, at least once, to walk the aisles at the McCormick Center! Having a well-rounded perspective on the full scope of our industry, and the tangential opportunities it provides, would likely motivate many to commit themselves to their work with renewed enthusiasm and vigor. I was well into my restaurant career before attending my first NRA Show, and I will never forget the sense of awe it instilled. The first impression was powerful and enduring.
While it may not be practical for companies to send all of their employees to Chicago (even just once), I highly recommend that a concerted effort is made to send a variety of people from different disciplines within the organization. Your team will develop a better sense of all of the moving parts of the industry and the interwoven nature of the various trades and service providers. Without fail, innovation is always on display, and can inspire your team in ways that you may have never considered.
When it is all said and done, the main draw of the show isn’t the latest shiny piece of equipment, nor the popular booths offering the latest culinary delights. (By the way, make sure to pack clothes that have those elastic waist bands—you’ll need them). It isn’t the educational seminars that make the unpredictable Chicago weather of May worth the gamble. (Though you certainly do not want to miss those sessions). Just like the industry itself, it is the people who make the difference.
The people are the draw; they are the gravitational force that attracts me to Chicago. Among them are folks who have been part of my life for the better part of 50 years, but this year more than any other before it, I look forward to the new relationships that may be forged. Whether I have known you for 40 years or 40 seconds, I am eager to shake your hand!
Don Fox is Chief Executive Officer of Firehouse Subs, in which he leads the strategic growth of Firehouse Subs, one of the world’s leading restaurant brands. Under his leadership, the brand has grown to more than 1,200 restaurants in 45 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and non-traditional locations. Don sits on various boards of influence in the business and non-profit communities, and is a respected speaker, commentator and published author. He was recognized by Nation’s Restaurant News as 2011’s Operator of the Year. In 2013, he received the prestigious Silver Plate Award from the International Food Manufacturers Association (IFMA).