Inside the National Restaurant Association Show

May 17 2009 - 11:44 AM

The National Restaurant Association (NRA) has arrived for their 2009 trade show and convention, which means a flood of convention attendees into Near-North restaurants and more importantly, a massive concentration of restaurant industry knowledge and superstars in the Windy City for four days (May 16-19). The show is geared towards restaurant operators and related businesses, and thus it is closed to industry professionals. However, there is much to pique the interest of anyone looking to learn about new product developments or gauge upcoming trends.

As I entered the labyrinthine halls of McCormick Place, a sea of color-coded name tags marked each of the (70,000+) registered attendees. The most prominent were exhibitors (blue) and the backbone of the convention, restaurant/foodservice representatives (red), with a smattering of distributors (yellow), lodging (orange), press (green) and affiliated (purple) attendees like students. Next, hundreds of booths vied to attract my attention, with all manner of flashing lights, food displays, and dancing mascots. The crowds were particularly heavy at the Anheuser-Busch booth, where several beers were available on tap.

The NRA show is essentially one-stop shopping for restaurant operators, offering everything from accounting systems to zesters. Start-up enterprises pitch their new ideas (like this pasta twirling plate), while established corporations reinforce and update their branding. Most exhibitors hail from out of state, or serve national audiences, but there were a few local Chicago businesses hawking their wares. Manny's Deli was presenting a selection of deli meats at their booth, while Tilted Kilt was, shall we say, presenting a different kind of meat. A section was devoted to products from Great Lakes region states, showcasing a wide variety of Wisconsin cheese and Michigan apple products.

One new product that caught my eye was the Rational Self-Cooking Center. If the NRA show were the Olympics, the Rational Self-Cooking Center would win the gymnastics all-around medal. With one piece of equipment and the touch of a few buttons, you can prepare a piece of steak to the perfect amount of doneness, bake a souffle or a baguette, make french fries, and chill or warm plated food until the appropriate serve time. The Self-Cooking Center continuously checks and adjusts for cooking time, temperature and humidity, while automatically detecting the size and type of product placed inside.

Skeptical, I stepped toward the tray of samples and picked up a piece of popcorn chicken. It was piping hot, with crisp breading on the exterior and juicy meat in the center. It was hard to believe that this wasn't fried, but had instead been prepared in a "CombiFry" basket entirely without fat. Still unconvinced, I next went for a biscuit, which was of appropriately tender consistency, light and fluffy. In other words, there's something to be said for having your food cooked by an artificially intelligent machine.

As a blogger, I was also on the look-out for any and all innovations in social media marketing. Enter JitterGram, a new service that enables businesses to send text message promotions to mobile phones. In another demonstration of the fading power of print media, you can simply show the merchant your phone, rather than clipping out paper coupons. Moreover, the results are in real-time; you can immediately broadcast a happy hour special or a newly-opened table on Saturday night. JitterGram was founded in January of this year, and has been gradually expanding their network from their New Hampshire base. I will be curious to see where they are a year from now.

Photos (clockwise from left): Organized microbes from Sani Professional, flatware display from Thunder Group, fresh Mexican ingredients from Rick Bayless demo, Rational Self-Cooking Center unit