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5 questions not to ask at the NRA Show

Avoid being hissed off the trade-show floor.

With more than 100 education sessions and the largest gathering of restaurant brains in attendance, the National Restaurant Association’s May convention is an ideal place to find answers to everyday dilemmas. But you may want to forgo these queries for the sake of industry harmony: question marks

1. Who cares about fresh? One of the themes certain to be reflected at the show is the consumer’s still-growing demand for fresher, less-processed options. Yet there’s a disconnect between that yearning and what some chains and suppliers continue to crank through R&D. Grandma wouldn’t make those products at home, even if she had the food-technology background to do it. Why bet that customers would prefer them?

Chains still are wagering that powdered flavorings and abominations like a waffle taco will sell if there’s enough of a marketing push. Contrast those with the latest product introductions of Chipotle (organic tofu), Chick-fil-A (chicken marinated in sea salt, lemon, garlic and herbs) and Panera Bread (a bagel made with ancient grains such as spelt and groats). Now, guess which camp has the higher sales?

2. Seen any PE execs around? Private-equity companies now control a big chunk of the restaurant business, so you’d think they’d seize the opportunity to learn more about it. The plan was to buy and peddle restaurant brands the way an 11-year-old manages a bobble-head collection, but market conditions have prompted many to hold their purchases longer than expected. So if you see Steve Romaniello, managing director of Roark Capital, a.k.a. the owner-operator of Carl’s Jr., Hardee’s, Corner Bakery, Moe’s, Schlotzsky’s and more, give him a hug. He’s one of the few PE leaders with enough sense to learn about the business where his firm contends.

3. What’s a hashtag? If you haven’t developed at least a yeoman’s proficiency in the use of Twitter, grab a millennial and barter music downloads for a remedial lesson. Without it, you’re going to miss insightful undercurrents of the show—and maybe a delicious tidbit of gossip.

4. Who’s afraid of a stinking union? If those words should slip out, glance around to see if any McCormick Place Teamsters overheard. If they did, scramble to call the family, because your jaw might be wired shut for a while. Even if the Teamster doesn’t hear you, a punch in the mouth could be delivered by another restaurateur. Years ago, a small sign for my then-employer’s booth had been delivered erroneously to the exhibitor across the aisle. We were forbidden to move it ourselves. The charge to have a union guy do it: $75.

The situation at the convention center is an example of why the restaurant industry shouldn’t get cocky about its resistance to the recent tactics of unions and union look-alikes such as the Restaurant Opportunities Center. And it’s a reminder of why the industry should voluntarily do what’s right, given how much labor costs stand to increase because of mandates.

5. “They don’t shoot no-shows, do they?” Local restaurants cater to the city’s big conventions. Many complain that no-shows soar during one particular conference. That event? The NRA Show, ironically.

Have a good show, and please stop by our booth to say hello.

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