They came, they shopped, they nibbled, they nibbled some more. But restaurateurs who turned out for Day One of the National Restaurant Association’s annual convention came away with more than just sore feet and a vow to eat nothing but salads for the next month. Here, for an investment of 12,603 steps, was the return on blisters for one attendee.
The spike in labor costs has supplanted recruitment problems as the top concern of restaurateurs, according to the NRA. The association noted during a special show-within-a-show for fast-casual restaurants that 30 percent of operators surveyed in April cited skyrocketing wages as a pressing problem. And it's no wonder: Restaurant wages are expected to climb by 3.9 percent this year, faster than the increase in industrywide sales and the rate of food inflation, the association noted. Margins will take a hit.
Tech’s new frontier: Table choice
A blindfolded attendee would have thought he’d drifted into a technology conference. The benefits of bits and bytes were hailed by presenters as potential salves for most rubs of the business, from keeping food germ-free to delivering in high-traffic settings.
The most surprising application discussed during kick-off day is one that consumers would like restaurants to borrow from the airline business. Forty-five percent of the public want to choose their table and seat from a digital schematic, just as they choose their seat before they fly, according to the NRA.
Restaurants’ tech wish: Digital crystal balls
Presenters touched on such futuristic uses of tech as drone delivery (likely to be embraced by one in four adult consumers, the NRA said) and robots (which are still a Jetsons-caliber fantasy at this point, presenters agreed).
The application restaurateurs would most like to see is predictive ordering, or nailing what customers are going to want before they go ahead and order, indicated Hudson Riehle, SVP of the NRA’s research and knowledge group.
Weather forecasting should also be a concern, according to Riehle. Earlier, he had aired meteorologists’ consensus that temperatures will be “above or exceptionally above the normal level.” Research and past experience has shown that aberrant weather is a sales detriment, he noted.
Is Mediterranean the next Italian?
Italian, Mexican and Asian food is so familiar to today’s diners that they no longer regard those cuisines as ethnic. The new ethnic menus gaining attention at the fastest clip are Mediterranean, Spanish, Caribbean and Middle Eastern, Riehle revealed.
Concept to scout: Thrive360
As always, casual conversations between restaurateurs drifted to which local restaurants they intended to see and study while in Chicago for the show. The concept mentioned often during eavesdropped chats, and even noted on the stage as visit-worthy by Technomic President Darren Tristano, is Thrive360, the just-opened fast-casual concept hatched by the health-oriented Protein Bar chain. Tristano noted in an off-stage conversation that the feature worth noting was the drink menu, which included a Kombucha Cubed Mocktail made with flavor-infused ice cubes.
Thrive360 specializes in bowls, wraps and soups with a healthy bent, but is not as severely good for you as the specialties of Protein Bar. For instance, butter is used in some of the dishes.
Fashion accessory of the show: The fedora
The baseball cap has been supplanted by the fedora as the headwear of choice for men in the business, judging from the traffic inside the McCormick Place convention center. At times, the show could have passed as a convention for hat sellers. A look up and down the aisles showed man after man rocking a MadMen-like lid.
This week's head-spinning restaurant moments included a suggestion in court that the "b" in IHOb stood for "bad news for Applebee's." That's just one of the long-shot gambles that came to light as oddsmakers considered the likelihood of restaurants charging into sports betting and who'll win the chain vs. independent bout.