CHICAGO – Eduardo Salume is the owner of El Salvador’s largest quick-service hamburger chain–Biggest.

“We call it Biggest, because we make the biggest hamburgers,” says Salume, who operates 36 stores in a country of 6.9 million people. “[The burger] is a half pound of beef, and the bun is six inches. You can hardly eat your fries and drink your coke when you eat our hamburger–it’s so big. People in my country love it.”

But they also love McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King. That’s why Salume is one of a couple thousand international attendees at the National Restaurant Association Hotel-Motel Show May 19-22. The show attracts 2,100 exhibiting companies and 73,000 attendees and visitors from all 50 states and 110 countries.

“We are competing with all the international chains, especially the ones from the United States,” Salume says. “I come here every year to stay up with the technology. In one visit, you see thousands of suppliers.”

According to show officials, some 200 foreign companies from 12 countries are exhibiting, including Bogota, Columbia-based Envases Puros. The company–a supplier of paper cups and other food packaging–is targeting Latin American companies.

“The NRA show is the benchmark show not just for the United States, but for the Latin American markets,” says Dietlof Von Arnim, an executive with Envases Puros. “There are a lot of potential customers that you can’t reach anywhere but this show.”

International: After walking by the Schult Signage Menu Digital booth,
Eduardo Salume fell in love with the giant digital hamburger. Salume,
owner of El Salvador’s largest hamburger chain, plans to do business
with several companies at the NRA show. Photo by Fred Minnick.

Arnim says the NRA show eliminated the middle man.

“To talk to [owners and executives] directly, you have to go through purchasing or somebody else,” he says. “This show makes it easier for us to target customers at the higher level.”

There are also 50 credentialed international media and European restaurateurs have jumped the pond to observe the latest trends.

“Europeans are looking for innovations to take back. They’re looking for healthy food alternatives, trans-fat free options and innovative technology solutions,” says Bill Cox, managing director for Cox Communications, who recruited Europeans to attend the NRA show. “The NRA is very well positioned in Europe. It’s a big show.”

The international cuisine makes an impact on the U.S. operators, too. At the International Pavilion, foods from all over the world are featured.

According to the National Restaurant Association’s survey of more than 1,000 chefs, the hottest menu trends right now include a variety of ethnic cuisines, including Asian appetizers, Mediterranean, Latin American, Pan-Asian, Brazilian/Argentinean, Thai, sushi, and Cuban cuisines. These, and thousands of other items, can be found among the Show’s 2,100-plus exhibitors.

“Great food is the main reason restaurants are a big part of Americans’ lifestyle, and our Show delivers unparalleled opportunities for industry professionals to explore how to spice up their menus to satisfy consumers’ increasingly adventurous tastes,” says William C. Anton, FMP, convention chairman for the 2007 Show, and chairman and founder of Anton Airfood Inc.

-Fred Minnick