The restaurant industry’s continued optimism for stronger business and economic growth helped propel an increase in both attendance and number of exhibitors at the annual National Restaurant Association Show this year.

Although the event in Chicago took place two weeks earlier than usual—it’s typically held the third weekend in May, but was rescheduled this year to avoid conflicting with the NATO Summit—it still managed to best the performance recorded in 2011.

“It’s been exciting at every point, from the ribbon cutting with Mayor [Rahm] Emanuel, to events with chefs, to the address by [former] President Clinton, to activity on the floor,” says Mary Pat Heftman, the NRA’s executive vice president, convention.

The association said last week it had sold out its display space with 1,900 exhibitors, including 500 first-timers.

“That’s about 5 percent bigger than last year,” Heftman says. Attendance was also tracking ahead of 2011, when nearly 58,000 people checked in; the final tally should be a couple of percentage points above that.

“The aisles were full and there was a lot of excitement,” Heftman adds. A stronger economy “never hurts,” and it was clear attendees were “more engaged.”

Exhibitors reported varying degrees of business during the show. A few said results were exceptional, while a handful thought activity was equal to or a little below last year.

More typical was the reaction shared by Little Lady Foods, a frozen pizza and gourmet sandwich maker based in Elk Grove, Illinois.

“We definitely did better this year,” says Neal Pearlman, director of business development. “We stuck with our core products, not the things that are way out there, and I think people really embraced that.”

Some show highlights:

Most popular booths: Visitors were still lining up at Coca-Cola’s three Freestyle beverage dispensers on the show floor, but the activity at several food-company booths was just as busy.

Count hot-dog purveyors Vienna Beef and Nathan’s, plus Fontanini Meats, among them. In fact, on a couple of occasions, people were queued halfway around the Vienna booth waiting for a whole, Chicago-style hot dog.

Noteworthy new food and beverage gizmos: There’s been considerable interest in beverages at this year’s show, because drinks are such a great revenue generator.

As specialty coffee drinks continue to grow in popularity, Nestle Professional’s Milano machine appears to be a device that will allow numerous restaurants to keep up with the likes of Starbucks and McDonald’s.

The machine produces consistent cups of espresso, latte, mocha, cappuccino, and more by pouring and layering combinations of skim milk, a special roasted coffee, and, if necessary, chocolate. The layering is accomplished by adding ingredients in different angles and at different temperature. There is space in the machine to add more flavors.

Expect Nestle to develop a self-serve version of the Milano, a la Freestyle.

Just as innovative was the Vitamix Automatic Mix’n Machine, which won one of the NRA’s Kitchen Innovations Awards. The hands-free, programmable machine mixes candies, cookies, and other ingredients with soft-serve ice cream or yogurt, but takes the technology from the back of the counter to the front where customers can operate it.

Cool packaging concepts: There are plenty of great ideas that made their way to the show floor, but one that combined down-home history with a sense of humor is Ole Smokey Moonshine, a Tennessee whiskey.

It comes in mason jars. For the uninitiated, that’s how white lightning was often distributed from illegal stills around Appalachia in the good-old days. Tennessee law now allows the distillation of spirits, so there are no worries about revenuers.

“We make it much the way my grandfather did,” says Joe Baker, one of the founders. Using locally grown corn and the family recipe, combined with some modern techniques like double distillation, the result is a very smooth product.

Unusual products: How about the Corkcicle?

Shaped like a long icicle with a cork at the top, the device is a way to keep wine cold and sealed after the bottle is opened, saving floor space taken up by ice buckets.

Based in Orlando, Florida, Corkcicle began selling its devices in the consumer market in 2011 but developed a commercial product this year, a company spokesman said. It consists of 16 corkcicles and a holding rack that can be stored in a restaurant’s freezer.

The “icicle” part of the product is made of a BPA-free plastic that retains its coldness for about an hour, while the “cork” is a rubber-like plastic.

By Barney Wolf

Growth, News, Restaurant Operations