While the celebrity appearances, free swag, awards ceremonies and wacky foods often get the spotlight at the National Restaurant Association Show, we also found plenty of operational takeaways for restaurateurs to pack into their bags and bring back to their home offices.
Here, you’ll find a roundup of current operational trends the Restaurant Business editors picked up during their time on the NRA Show floor and beyond.
1. Beating the competition…at hiring
Restaurants are finding that they not only are competing with other employers in their area for good talent, but with neighboring cities that have a higher minimum wage, as well.
So several operators tossed out their lures for attracting talent—and keeping it—in today’s shallow pool.
Little Caesars hires primarily based on referrals, while The Habit Burger Grill rewards employee referrals with bonuses—plus, staff who stay on also earn retention bonuses.
Ivar’s Restaurants is adapting its hiring process to keep up with millennials. While it used to take 10 to 12 days to move talent from application to hire, now it’s five, said Patrick Yearout, director of recruiting and training for the seafood restaurant chain.
2. Overtime is an open question
With the feds changing the rules by which employees qualify for overtime less than a week before the start of the NRA Show, operators we talked to still were trying to digest the news.
We got almost universal head shaking and heavy sighs when we asked restaurateurs what they thought. But very few knew yet—or at least weren’t saying—how exactly they would deal with the steeper threshold for qualifying employees in their own operations.
Some with operations on the West Coast, however, appeared less jarred by the rules change, perhaps because the higher cost of living and higher minimum wage already push many over the threshold. Executives at Ivar's and Habit, for example, say they aren’t worried because they already pay their managers above the $47,476 cap.
3. Servers gotta teach
No matter how much technology proliferates and how much labor pressures squeeze the size of the labor force, there always will be a place for human servers—even though the role itself is evolving.
At Chicago restaurant Imperial Lamian, one of the stops on a Taste the Trends tour with operators during the NRA Show, servers showed just how valuable they are—especially in more authentic ethnic concepts. After placing a steamer with soup dumplings on the table, the server explained how to eat the liquid- and pork-filled pockets to the first-timers.
As our editor on the scene noted, it not only makes guests feel like they’re having an authentic experience, it ensures the food is experienced the way the chef intended.
4. Water, water, nowhere
The next hair-on-fire issue for foodservice operators may be (ironically) water.
According to the NRA’s executive vice president of government affairs and policy, Cicely Simpson, in the next three years, water shortages and how that issue shapes sustainability efforts will be top of mind—and not just in certain parts of the country.
Schools are focusing on the issue, she said, and she is starting to see operators prepare. For instance, Baskin-Robbins is paying more attention to their dipping wells and overall consumption. And a huge number of exhibitors at the NRA Show were touting the water-conserving benefits of their products and equipment.
5. Forget meeting customers’ desires—now you must predict them
More and more restaurants are using technology to anticipate what guests might want and when they might want it.
Online ordering, mobile apps, loyalty programs and good analysis are helping operators entice customers to come in to order their favorite lunch again—and making it more convenient than ever for customers to do so, the NRA reports.
But even beyond the cues consumers themselves give off by their past behavior and preferences, restaurants are looking to anything that can help with predictions—including anticipating weather changes.
6. Let us entertain you
And yet restaurants continue to find ways to be inventive and, more importantly, authentic when delivering dinner with a show. Concepts in the NRA Show’s home city didn’t disappoint: Diners at Imperial Lamian in Chicago watched cooks hand-pull noodles and stuff dumplings at its open kitchen counter. At Grant Achatz’s new spot Roister, opened only weeks before, guests sit at counters on all four sides of the kitchen.
And at Swift & Sons steakhouse, one of the hottest tickets in town, a bartender-slash-storyteller rolls out a specially outfitted bar cart and stirs a signature martini tableside while relaying lesser-known anecdotes from Ian Fleming’s novels.