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How to find lunch at the industry's largest smorgasbord, i.e. the NRA Show

Staying fueled can be a challenge at the show, even with all the food that's offered. Here's our advice on where to look.
Photograph by Peter Romeo

It’s an irony appreciated by any hungry attendee or exhibitor on the floor of the National Restaurant Association Show: At a conference for the food business, it’s often tough to find something for lunch.

McDonald’s, Connie’s Pizza and the few other restaurants in McCormick Place are usually packed at midday, and they’ll certainly pull you away from the action of the show, even if you don’t get tired of those options by Day 3.

The better bet might be hitting the booths that offer enough of a sample to fill the tank. A lone stop at one exhibit might not complete the mission.  But string together two or three decent-sized giveaways at multiple exhibits and you’ll likely end up stuffed, without spending a penny.

What might those choices be, you ask? Wonder no more. As a service to fellow attendees, our intrepid food hunter (i.e., me) scouted the aisles at McCormick in search of ample servings of tasty delights. Here are the booths that can keep you fueled through the day, though you’ll likely have to hit a minimum of three.

A tip for show newbies:  The better and bigger the giveaway, the longer the queue for a sample likely will be at peak demand. The alternative is to hit a slew of booths offering bite-sized samples, often with a toothpick somehow involved. If that’s your choice, the hands-down best hunting ground is the Lakeside array of food companies, where you’ll see a wide range of products, and an abundance plant-forward items in particular.

We don’t pretend that our list of lunch possibilities is a complete one. Pleasant surprises could well be hiding in aisles on the perusal list for Monday and Tuesday.  But it’ll hold off starvation until a real meal can be enjoyed in one of Chicago’s standout restaurants post-exhibit hours.

Now if only we could find a place to put our feet up.

Nathan’s Famous, Booth 6016  

The hot dog king provides a half-frank, hot off the grill, in a like-sized cut-down bun.  You can even dress your weenie according to your preferences.

Vienna Beef, Booth 6624

For a little variety, try the chicken dogs served by this nearby alternative. On Saturday, before the crowd really thickened, the staff was giving away whole dogs. 

Yo!, Booth 1084

What could be a better show breakfast than a sunnyside-up egg served with a stick of toast? The kicker is that this version won’t drive up your cholesterol reading. It’s made from chickpeas. You’ll have to trek a far ways to get it (Yo Foods is exhibiting in the Organic & Natural section of the show), but you’ll simultaneously be doing research on what’s new in the way of plant-forward items.

Naughty Chile Taqueria, 7562

For something with a little more kick, try the array of burritos and other Tex-Mex items being served up by this small but buzzing booth.  Attendees were raving about the samples, though scoring one did involve some interaction with the host team; you can’t just walk up, grab something and then meld into the crowd without a badge scanning.

The booth is part of the American Food Fair section of the show floor. If a burrito doesn’t appeal to you, chances are you’ll find other regional products that can fend off hunger for a bit.

Broaster, Booth 3801

For one of the more toothsome samples you’ll find on the show, line up for a chicken leg or thigh cooked in one of the company’s proprietary pressure fryers. The supplier boasts that the chicken is particularly tender and juice because of the way it’s cooked. They made believers of us.

Grecian Delight, Booth 812

Mini shawarma wraps are offered at this booth not far off the general atrium area between the two main exhibit halls. The supplier says the three-bite item is the OG—the original gyro. As an added boost, the location is near a window-wide wall where you can readily sit and eat.

Impossible Foods, Booth 10012

If you make it over to Lakeside and then decide you want something with a little more substance than a canape-sized sample of bison, look for this booth. You’ll  likely spot it because of all the representatives walking the surrounding aisles, offering arrays of the plant-forward specialist’s items. The options range from a slider-sized full meatless burger to meatballs and the company’s newest product, sausage made from plants.


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