The National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) annual Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show came to a close Tuesday, and already attendees have something to look forward to: Next year, the Show will be expanded to a fourth exhibit hall, based on the strength of this year’s event.

The additional exhibit space will be located in the Lakeside Pavilion at the huge McCormick Place convention center, next to this year’s new digs for the companion International Wine, Spirits & Beer Event (IWSB).

“It has been a while, probably since about 2005, that I saw this kind of traffic on the [exhibit] floor,” says the show’s veteran manager, Mary Pat Heftman, executive vice president of convention and strategic alliances for the NRA. “People are staying longer, too.”

Even before the show began, registration and the number of exhibitors for both the NRA Show and IWSB event were up from last year. Total attendance will be released at a later date.

Heftman says feedback from exhibitors has been extremely positive, and many of them were seeing increased opportunities. “It bodes well for the industry, in the confidence in the industry and the confidence in the economy,” she says.

She notes that exhibitors are developing more creative solutions for operators, and that that is reflected in the large number—24—of Kitchen Innovations Awards this year. She also says those in attendance responded well to new areas, such as the Foodamental Studio.

The number of creative food solutions, particularly for consumers who have dietary restrictions or make alternative dietary choices, has also expanded, Heftman says, with three of the annual Food and Beverage Innovations going for gluten-free items.

“We are seeing a lot of very positive signs,” she says.

Technology takes center stage

The show’s Technology Pavilion may have been at the far end of an exhibit hall, but there was no doubt that computer-related gadgets and applications was at the center of attention for many attendees. There were plenty of new and old companies offering various devices and software—point-of-sale systems, mobile applications, loyalty program management, and digital menuboards among them—but a lot of talk was about making all of these technological advancements work seamlessly with one another.

“We’re on the verge of a new era in the restaurant business,” says David Gilbert, president of the hospitality division of Heartland Payment Systems, whose company rolled out a new security program during the show. In the past, big restaurant companies had an advantage because of their deep pockets, but now, “lots of things can be added to your business to help it grow without breaking the bank,” he says. That’s particularly important when small or mid-sized restaurant operators aren’t sure what technology will work the best.

The mantra from many of the experts and developers at the show was to have an open platform that allows many different applications to work together to drive innovation.

WhentoManage, known for its digital solutions for employee management, inventory management, and point-of-sales intelligence also operates an open platform called Peach, and allows developers free access to the platform for their apps.

“It allows restaurant owners to have access to software solutions without huge costs, and it will be secure,” says Jeff Schacher, the company’s founder and chief executive.

Security is key in all this, and another important factor for operators is who controls the consumer data gathered digitally.

Hidden trend

Walking through the 10 miles of exhibits at the NRA Show and ISWB Event, there’s one quiet trend that stood out: self-service alcohol. It’s the natural next step for Millennials, who are used to self-service soft-drink stations, the experts say.

Guests use a card—prepaid or carrying a running tab—to access the wine or beer taps on several different products presented at the Show. A company like Napa Technologies ties the taps to bottles of wine you can see behind glass, and the taps can pour several different exact portion sizes. DraftServ Technologies offers machines that give consumers the ability to pour any amount of beer they want.

Most unusual product

Although there were no truly odd products this year, two were a bit unusual.

uZAPPit Smart Tags have been featured at several NRA Shows, and they are keychains that include a QR Code that can link to a website that includes anything the operator wants, from menus to special offers.

Then there’s Bang caffeinated ice cream. A scoop of the Wisconsin company’s product provides the same amount of caffeine as an energy drink.

By Barney Wolf

Beverage, News, Ordering