Most of the team at Rewards Network have attended the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago many times over, so this year, we wanted to get insight from someone experiencing the 680,000 square foot exhibition space for the first time.
Steve Kelley has over 25 years of management and front of house experience in the restaurant industry, and is currently a server and trainer for Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab in downtown Chicago. Post-show, Steve sat down with us at Rewards Network to share his thoughts about his first impressions, what was hot — and what was not.
Before you arrived, what were your expectations for the NRA Show?
I was hoping to see food vendors/distributors and new cooking techniques and demonstrations.
When I first walked in, I was blown away at how large the show was. I walked into one of the smaller areas first. I noticed the Lavazza coffee area. The café setup was well done and it was nice to get a fresh espresso. A great way to start the morning!
What was the most interesting booth you saw at the show?
The Riedel booth was interesting and like a museum. They call their stemware and decanters “functional art.” I am a fan of their products, and they had some great new designs, including the table-hanging decanters.
There was also a booth that had a cascading wall of chocolate — a fondue device, but flat — that caught my eye as well.
What do you think exhibitors did right in their booths to engage you?
Most had food and beverage samples to try or hands-on demonstrations of their products. Interestingly, some of the exhibitors were not as warm and engaging as I would expect at a tradeshow. I felt I had to work a bit at getting them to engage with me in conversation.
What did you see at the show that you thought could help you in your role in the restaurant industry?
It’s always important to gain general knowledge of the many options there are for a restaurateur out there, in almost every aspect of the business — from uniforms and décor, to equipment and take out containers. I feel this helps me be more aware of trends and keep a pulse on what the market is demanding/asking for.
Some of the new wave storage containers (refrigeration, etc.) clearly can help with organization, efficiency, and food quality. I also saw hot plates to cook at your table–stones that are heated in the kitchen and brought out on a trivet, but the stones are actually hot enough to cook food at your table.
What was the most interesting marketing innovation you saw at the show?
The egg spinner was interesting. You can dump a whole flat of eggs in the container separated the eggs from the shell. It then whipped the eggs while continuing to separate the shell. If you use a lot of eggs in your recipes, this seemed to be a great way to improve your efficiency cooking or baking.
I also saw Himalayan pink salt planks that you cook on and provide that unique flavor into your dishes.
The vegan pizzas were interesting and although I am not vegan, there were some delicious ones I tasted. I also really enjoyed the Bueno Foods booth. Having lived in New Mexico, it’s hard to secure fresh and high quality green chile in the Midwest like the kind produced out of New Mexico. It was a treat to see a New Mexico (home of green chile) vendor there and experience the authentic new Mexican cuisine they had for samples.
But overall, I expected to see more big food companies there. That surprised me.
If you were to return to the show with another restaurant industry professional, what highlights would you want to show them?
The local/regional food corner was awesome. Supporting local businesses is always great and you can tell the freshness and quality of their products. I really enjoyed meeting the people at those booths as well, since most of them are the owners. You get such a great sense of pride and dedication to their craft.
Most of all though, if you’re going to go to NRA, prepare to get your walking on! Wear comfy shoes and give yourself as much time as possible to explore the show. If you can do more than one day, make sure to do that!
Understandably, the booths are not clustered together by product type or service, so make sure to read your program beforehand and mark your “must sees” before you go. The show is large and if you don’t have multiple days to attend and walk the floor, you can miss out on some booths you wanted to see.
Want to hear about what NRA speaker Nely Galàn had to say about restaurant entrepreneurship?