With the 90th annual National Restaurant Association (NRA) Show in Chicago heading in to its third day, many attendees are disappointed with low turnout compared with past years.

The four-day event, which attracted an estimated 71,500 attendees and more than 2,200 exhibitors in 2008, has seen a significant slimming this year, as the recession has hit one of the largest restaurant-industry gatherings in the world.

“They’re holding their own, but, like everything else, [the NRA Show has] been affected” by the economy, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley said Saturday on the convention floor in McCormick Place. “This is a tsunami.”

The NRA could not estimate attendance before the show ends on Tuesday because of a surge in late registrants, but Greg Kirrish, vice president of sales and marketing for the association, said attendance numbers would “undoubtedly” fall short of last year’s figures.

A Coca-Cola spokesman estimated a drop off of 15 to 20 percent from 2008.

“Traffic is lower than last year,” said Ben Middleton, senior trade communications manager for Coca-Cola North America. “The health of face-to-face marketing does depend on the economy.”

The decline is typical for industry conventions since the recession hit, Middleton said.

Coca-Cola wasn’t the only convention mainstay to declare a downturn. Steve Don, president and CEO of Edward Don & Co., a foodservice equipment and supplies dealership and one of the convention’s longest standing exhibitors, also said attendance had decreased.

But business is still getting done, Don said.

“Overall attendance is a little bit down, but there’s still a lot of quality buyers,” Don said. “The vice president might have come and not brought along the director and the associate. The key players from the companies are here. So, its quality versus quantity.”

The Illinois-based company flew in fewer employees for the show, Don said, relying more on local help than last year.

Though fewer attendees might mean less business, some vendors are happy companies whittled down their convention teams. In past years, “companies would send their whole departments and you never knew who you were talking to,” said Michael Cosentino, national account sales manager for Cimbali USA Inc., a coffee-machine manufacturer. “Not this show. The big guys are here, the decision makers are here. I don’t have to wade through the minutia.”

Beside the recession, the biyearly North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers Show held in Orlando, Florida, in February may have cut into NRA show attendance. The NAFEM show attracted an estimated 20,000 attendees and 600 exhibitors.

“Some [vendors] paid for a booth and backed out, and others just said, ‘We’re going to come on off-NAFEM years,” said 23-year convention goer Bruce Clark, a sales representative for Tri City Equipment Co., which distributes for Henny Penny Corp.

Kathleen Smith, part owner of the Fish House, a Chicago quick-service restaurant, was shocked at the convention’s low turnout as she walked down center aisle in McCormick’s south hall.

“There were years when we would come and we would be elbow to elbow,” said Smith, who has attended the restaurant show for seven years. “The vendors gave out more food, treats, knick knacks and they’ve cut back. The economy has taken its toll, even on an event like this.”

The NRA plans to release attendance figures later this week.

By Jordan Melnick