As the four-day National Restaurant Association (NRA) Show comes to a close, organizers have begun to take stock of this year's event.

With exhibiters taking up 7 percent more space this year and with the show boasting higher attendance by restaurant operators and other groups, the mood has been mostly optimistic.

"We've had great feedback from a number of exhibiters," says Mary Pat Heftman, the NRA's executive vice president, convention.

Part of the reason is that after several years of recession, when operators were holding back, "they are now looking to make capital expenditures" to help their businesses grow or expand. "We gave them lots of tools and educational sessions" to accomplish that, Heftman says.

Thousands of exhibiters filled Chicago's McCormick Place this year to entice restaurant operators to buy equipment, food, beverages, and technology. The exhibits lined several miles of aisles and attracted tens of thousands of visitors.

Some long-time show participants also were more encouraged by the show this year.

"I think people were really engaged this year," says Don Odiorne, aka “Dr. Potato,” vice president, foodservice, at the Idaho Potato Commission. "People were really looking seriously at possibly buying new equipment or trying new items."

As with any event, there were some notable features. Here is a glimpse of some interesting exhibiters for the quick-service and fast-casual industry:

Most popular booth – Far and away the winner here, again this year, is Coca Cola and its Coca Cola Freestyle beverage dispenser.

From the moment the exhibit floor opened Saturday, people were lined up at each of several Freestyle machines to try them out. The dispensers have a touch screen that allows customers to choose from among 125 Coca Cola brands and flavors.

"The reception [at the show] has truly been amazing," says Chris Lowe, president of foodservice and on-premise for Atlanta-based Coca Cola.

Greenest exhibit – EcoLogicSolutions insists it has the "greenest booth in trade show history," and that just may be true.

It has a grass lawn, one wall of plants, and a smaller wall of edible herbs. The sanitizer is made of natural products and can even be sipped safely. The bench is made from recycled bottles, and there's a compost pile. The booth was shipped in a truck fueled by recycled vegetable oil.

"The core idea is sustainability," says Anselm Doering, president and CEO. "We think we have the type of products for any restaurant looking in that direction."

Top of the teatotling booths – With more than 50 companies offering tea and tea-making equipment at the show, the beverage continues to grow as a restaurant option.

S&D Coffee Inc. came away with one of the show's new Food and Beverage Product Innovation Awards for its natural brewed ice tea Brewmaster system. It features a liquid tea concentrate and a dispenser to deliver the appearance and flavor of high-quality fresh-brewed tea.

"You get all the taste of a fresh-brewed tea without any of the hassles or inconsistencies that you may normally have," says Toby Tomblin, S&D's vice president and director of food innovation and ingredients.

Healthiest exhibit – UnitedHealthcare serves only water at its show-floor location and encourages visitors to exercise or dance with Xbox Kinect programs.

On a more serious note, the booth was promoting a health program that the company formed with the NRA. For $5 per employee each month, NRA members can give their workers hospital and prescription discounts usually available to workers who have an insurance plan. The employees also get 24-hour phone access to a nurse.

"It's another tool that employers can use to help retain their workers," says Jeff Koch, a consultant who is working on the program for the restaurant association.

Most unusual product – It's a fork. It's chopsticks. It's a Chork?

That's right, the Chork—a combination chopsticks and fork. Two pieces of plastic, shaped as chopsticks, are at one end and come together at the other end as a fork.

"Kids just love them," says Mike Brown of Brown Innovation, the Salt Lake City, Utah, company that makes the Chork, an answer for people who use chopsticks until they get to the bottom of the bowl and can't get those final pieces of food.

Whether the Chork becomes a hit or the next Spork is up in the air.

By Barney Wolf

Beverage, Emerging Concepts, News