Day 1 at the Restaurant Show: Missing robots, weed-spiked drinks, AI and more

RB editors logged tens of thousands of steps on the Show floor Saturday as the 2024 edition of the National Restaurant Association Show kicked off in Chicago.
NRA Show 2024
As the National Restaurant Association Show officially kicked off Saturday, a crowd gets ready to enter the exhibit halls. | Photo: Heather Lalley

It was a busy opening day Saturday at the 2024 edition of the National Restaurant Association Show, made all the more pleasant by warm, sunny skies in Chicago. (As regular show-goers know, that is not always the case.)

Restaurant Business editors logged tens of thousands of steps on the Show floor opening day, hunting for trends. Here’s what they noticed:

Where are the robots?

In recent years, robots seemed all the rage. You couldn’t trip over a Hobart without hitting some sort of robot waiter or robotic arm doing something like making fries or smoothies or alcoholic beverages.

Not that they weren’t there, mind you. We had an experience with one particularly friendly robot arm and did see at least one robot waiter and a robot dishwasher. But there were fewer robots doing robot type things than there had been in the past.

Automation was there aplenty, as was AI. Indeed, equipment is doing more stuff automatically than ever before. But the robot revolution wasn’t quite as thrilling as it had been in the recent past. — Jonathan Maze

Move over mocktails; cannabis-infused drinks are ready for prime-time

Several companies selling THC-infused cocktails and infused non-alcoholic spirit alternatives are showing off their wares in the Show’s bar area. The availability of these weed-spiked drinks currently varies widely, based on state regulations, but the drink makers said they are working on expanding their presence not only in restaurants but in grocery and convenience stores, too. One such company, Flora Hemp Spirits, sells a Delta 8 (25 mg of THC per 2 ounces) and a Delta 9 spirit (10 mg of THC per 2 ounces). The company also sells CannaCocktails, canned cocktails with 5 mg THC, and CannaSpritz, a seltzer with 3 mg of THC. Another brand, Wynk, which says it is legal in 37 states, sells flavored seltzers with a 1:1 THC-CBD content of 5 mg each. — Heather Lalley

Making sustainability profitable

At a time when profitability is being challenged, any focus on sustainability can easily get punted.

But Andi Trindle Mersch, vice president of coffee operations for Philz Coffee, shared a tool that has helped the chain be more sustainable and protect margins.

At a session on “Less Waste, More Revenue,” Mersch said Philz has been using Too Good to Go, a marketplace for surplus food-and-beverage products that is now in 30 cities in the U.S. and in 19 countries worldwide.

Surplus products like coffee beans and pastries can be sold at a discount through Too Good to Go’s app. Users can purchase bags of end-of-the-day products from Philz—which might otherwise be sent to a landfill as waste. Users get the product at a 50% to 70% discount, but Philz was able to recover food costs.

And there’s often an incremental benefit: When users come to pick up their discounted bag, they often buy a cup of coffee or something while they’re there. — Lisa Jennings

AI may be a buzzword, but not for long

Artificial intelligence is the preordained hot tech item at the Show this year, and for good reason. Swing a baguette and you’re likely to hit a tech vendor pitching their new AI tool. It has earned AI the reputation of being a buzzword, and that’s also fair: The technology has a lot of promise but it’s also become a bandwagon.

Ask around though, and you’ll find plenty of people who are bullish on AI. Liz Moskow, a restaurant consultant who specializes in technology, says AI doesn’t deserve to get lumped in with other emerging tech like robots. She believes it’s the real deal.

Asked whether AI would ever be able to write a song with the same emotional weight as a human musician, she said, “I do think AI will. It’s learning every day.”

Dena Meek, the CEO and founder of an AI startup called XBlock, shared that view. She may be a little biased. But then again, she works with AI every day, and she said it only improves—it never goes backwards.

“It’s going to be more powerful than us soon,” she said. — Joe Guszkowski

High tech doesn’t have to be high priced

Operators who can’t afford the advanced tech on display at the show can still enjoy some surprisingly sophisticated labor benefits by using ChatGPT, the free AI app. During an educational session on low-cost ways to attract and retain employees, Adam Barringer, co-founder of SoNapa Grille, detailed how the three-unit full-service chain uses the app for the sort of services that paid consultants might provide. For instance, Barringer and his partner asked ChaptGTP to generate a list of behavior attributes they should seek in job candidates. They also asked the platform to recommend a system for encouraging current employees to refer potential hires to management. In both instances, the AI system provided an extensive list in seconds. — Peter Romeo

How to win over Gen Z

In an educational session on Cracking the Gen Z Code, four fast-casual marketers talked about connecting with this customer base. Erin Newkirk, chief brand & marketing officer at Caribou Coffee tapped into Gen Z’s affinity for all things reality, not only on social media but reality TV as well. To match up with that trend and boost the launch of Caribou’s new Fruit Shakers beverage line earlier this month, she and her team are creating a reality dating show on TikTok. Caribou held a casting call a couple of weeks ago, and 100 people showed up. The Gen Z singles haven’t been cast yet, but the dating show will debut in June. People make connections over coffee Newkirk said, and this initiative is authentic to the Caribou brand. The social chatter around the casting call alone has already doubled purchases of Fruit Shakers.

Caribou also works with a network of ambassadors through a company called Loud Crowd, which identifies Gen Zers who are passionate about the brand. Influencers may reach hundreds of thousands of followers, but ambassadors talk up the brand to their friends and have more impact. — Pat Cobe

@restaurantbusiness So much is happening during the #2024restaurantshow! Videos, podcasts, tastings, and more benches?! RB+ subscribers can take advantage if the new #VIP♬ original sound - Restaurant business

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