The improved economy and continuing growth of the restaurant industry helped spark a sense of optimism and enthusiasm that seemed to permeate the show floors at the annual National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago, which concluded its four-day run Tuesday.

The addition of another exhibit area this year seemed to make the show less crowded, even though attendance was at least as large as last year. And there were several more specialty pavilions, along with many new exhibitors, products, and concepts.

“There’s been incredible energy for the industry and certainly for the show, and optimism and excitement for what’s coming down the road,” says Mary Pat Heftman, executive vice president of convention and strategic alliances at the National Restaurant Association (NRA).

She adds that the show experienced “a banner year” in food and beverage awards, showing what is new and innovative, along with some great creative technology and equipment.

“There is no better research and development opportunity” than the restaurant show, she says, “[where] you can put your product in front of 60,000 industry professional from more than 40 foodservice-type operations, from fine dining to kiosks.”

That reaction was echoed by those manning the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board’s booth, which featured a wide range of cheese varieties and other products.

“There was more engagement,” says Allen Hendricks, vice president of foodservice and education for the board. The improved economy is starting to release pent-up demand, he adds, “and many of those who talked with us are very interested in how we can help them.”

The additional exhibit area was about a quarter-mile from the main halls, but Heftman says she received “great feedback” from exhibitors in the new area, which has plenty of natural light and overlooks Lake Michigan. “I think people appreciated that,” she says.

Heftman adds that NRA data shows that people stayed at the show longer this year than in past years.

No changes in the show’s basic layout are expected for next year’s show.


New Gadgets

One of the more unique products at the NRA Show was a gadget that frosts glass in about 10 seconds rather than the minutes it takes in a refrigerated area.

The device, which uses carbon dioxide, takes up only about a foot in width of a bar or other restaurant area. It shoots out the carbon dioxide through cones linked to a 20-pound tank that can be stored below. The technology keeps air out of the process.

“The cost is about 2 cents per glass, and think about all that you’re saving in energy and space that is required if you use refrigeration,” says Grayson Douglas, part of the family that runs the company selling the device, Campus Products Inc. of Oakville, Ontario.

Another company that featured a product that makes use of cold was Nice Fruit. The Spanish business developed a process that allows fruit and other food to be frozen without damaging their cellular structure, maintaining the vitamins and flavor of the items without leaving behind any taste or texture issues from ice crystals.

Nice Fruit is distributing its items through Del Monte in the U.S., a company spokesperson says.


Warning Signs

There was a lot of talk about Millennials at this year’s NRA Show, both in the technology they use and the way they like to experience food and restaurants. A number of educational sessions focused on ways to win over this large demographic.

But it also took a couple of those Millennials to look at an old solution in a new way.

Everyone is familiar with yellow cones and signs put down to warm people that an area is wet due to cleaning or spilled beverages. Banana Products came out with its own take, Banana Cones, which are warning cones in the shape of a banana.

“People are used to seeing regular cones, so they don’t really pay a lot of attention,” says Kevin Brogan, who started the business with his older brother and is graduating from the University of Texas in the next few days. “These make you more aware. You smile when you see them, and people subconsciously think of slipping when they see a banana peel.”

Statistic of the day: 65,000. That’s the estimated attendance for this year’s show. The final count will be released at a later date.

By Barney Wolf

Back of House, Consumer Trends, Customer Experience, Growth, News, Restaurant Operations