Every year, restaurant industry professionals flock to Chicago in late May for the National Restaurant Association Show — and Rewards Network is always there! But this year, we decided to let you hear from some newcomers to the annual show. What kinds of things stand out to fresh eyes?
Mrinalini Chakraborty is a PhD student at the University of Illinois — Chicago, specializing in genetic anthropology, and an avid food micro-blogger. Her interest in food, restaurants, and cooking can be found peppering Instagram and Twitter on a daily basis. Give her a follow!
Before you arrived, what were you hoping to get out of the NRA Show?
My primary interests were to see a few of the demonstrations by some of the top chefs from Chicago restaurants and also to learn about interesting innovations and trends in the restaurant/food industry – both inside and outside the kitchen.
I was hoping to learn about new technology in restaurant kitchens, but had an open mind. I didn’t know what exactly to expect so I guess the main expectation was to be surprised!
What did you notice first when you stepped onto the show floor?
The scale of the NRA show is quite something, especially for someone attending for the first time. It’s overwhelming in a sense, but I felt like a kid in a candy store!
I was immediately attracted to the gorgeous gadgets that were displayed at several booths, since the first room I visited was focused more on kitchen equipment and gadgets rather than food. The Tech Pavilion was my first calling.
Perhaps the most interesting booth was a robotic ‘fry cook’ manufactured by Middlebury Corp. and Pitco, in conjunction with Rethink Robotics. Automation in the kitchen seems to be the newest and hottest trend in the restaurant industry and I was mesmerized by the precision and the dexterity with which the robot moved through the various steps of a batch-frying operation in the kitchen.
What do you think exhibitors did right in their booths to engage you?
Food being cooked fresh and served warm is always a great attractor! We went to several booths where they were actually demonstrating the use of convection ovens, grills, and even silicone baking mats, but proving the point with fresh macarons, burgers, and gooey cookies, respectively, is hard to beat!
What did you see at the show that you thought was helpful?
My primary interest is writing a food blog and exploring and writing about the food scene in Chicago on various social media platforms.
The show didn’t add much in terms of food-spotting, but I learned about some interesting technological trends in the industry and cool innovations such as ‘guilt-free’ ice creams and machines that could customize your salad or automate the process of sushi-making! These are just cool to know about, but not typically what I write about.
In terms of what could help a restaurant owner, the obvious answers are of course, the technological and instrumentation innovations. However, I thought a lot of the demonstrations in the Tech Pavilion, focused on marketing and social media strategies could be very helpful for restaurants and other small businesses in the industry.
Any big innovations that caught your eye?
The most interesting equipment – and one that won a Kitchen Innovations Award at the 2016 show – was the Beverage-Air portable walk-in cooler. It sets up in 5 minutes, can cool down to 38°F in minutes, and has a capacity of up to 1,000 lb.
Even though most brick-and-mortar establishments will obviously have dedicated and higher capacity freezers/coolers, I felt this would be a great investment as a back-up or for kitchen emergencies. This would also be an indispensable piece of equipment for the rapidly expanding food truck industry!
There were lots of interesting and innovative food products at the show, but the Bulsara Foods 15-minute Tandoori Wet Rub just stole my heart. Not only was it a pleasure to meet the innovators behind the newly established company, but the rub was genuinely amazing and I went home with plenty of samples!
I found out that they also won one of the FABI awards at the 2016 show and I am not surprised!
Was there something that you wanted to see, but couldn’t find?
Nothing comes to mind immediately. I thought there was an excellent mix of all aspects of the food industry – from equipment to marketing, from food preparation to storage, and so on.
Did you attend any education sessions?
I attended the ‘Social Media Strategies’ session by Tess Vismale at the Tech Pavilion. It was a really interesting and informative session, geared towards anybody – individual or businesses – hoping to strengthen their social media presence.
The talk was very basic and accessible even to a social media novice, but the most interesting insight I gained was about integrating one’s social media presence across multiple platforms – Twitter, Instagram, etc. – and on the importance of being consistent in your posting schedule, etc. and tips to help achieve that.
If you were to return to the show with another restaurant industry professional, what highlights would you want to show them?
I would definitely want to allot more time for checking out the demonstrations by star chefs – something I had planned on seeing more of, but didn’t manage to see a lot of in the end. If I were to take someone else, I’d definitely explore the Tech Pavilion, World Culinary Showcase, Kitchen Innovations Awards, and FABI Awards-winning booths.
Have an itinerary for multiple days if you are planning on attending more than one day is key. It is very easy to get lost in one section or one of the grand halls and before you know it, the day is up!
If you are only visiting for one day, allot yourself a couple hours in each of the big halls and make a note (in advance) of shows and talks you definitely want to attend.
Finally, I’d not miss the highlights – the FABI award winners and the Kitchen Innovations awards winners. They are some of the most interesting and exciting exhibitors at the show and there’s a lot to learn from these booths, I found.
Check out what other newbie, Steve Kelley, had to say about his first time at the NRA Show!