How to navigate the National Restaurant Show like a pro

Whether you’re a first timer or conference veteran, here’s what you need to know about the biggest restaurant show in the Western hemisphere, which begins in Chicago on May 18.
Restaurant Show
More than 55,000 people are expected to attend the 2024 National Restaurant Show in Chicago this month. | Photo courtesy of National Restaurant Association Show.

With over 2,200 exhibitors and 100 education sessions and demos, the largest foodservice show in the Western Hemisphere is no place for the unprepared. So we pulled out some of the newest and not-to-be missed happenings to put on your radar.

More than 55,000 people are expected to attend, including about 7,000 coming from other countries. On the exhibit floor, 75 programs are planned, along with 11 beverage sessions and 10 culinary demos. Attendees may be hard-pressed to figure out where to head first. Not to mention that the Show has expanded to 700,000-square feet—the size of over 12 pro football fields—in Chicago’s McCormick Place.

Getting in enough steps won’t be a problem, but to save your poor feet from too many aches and pains, we’re highlighting some of the new and noteworthy stops to make during the run of the Show, which goes from May 18-21.

First: What to wear.

At this event, Hokas are perfectly appropriate with business-casual pants, even if you look like Frankenstein from the knees down. If you’re lucky enough to have scored the viral sneaker-loafer hybrid—the “snoafer”—this is the perfect opportunity to wear them. You will walk miles and miles and never leave the building. Everyone will understand that it’s all about comfort and blister avoidance.

José Andrés is the featured keynote with Michelle Korsmo, president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association (Monday, 1:15 pm, Grand Ballroom S100). Not only is Andrés known for his restaurant group that includes Minibar, Jaleo, Zaytinya, Bazaar and more, he founded the disaster relief group World Central Kitchen, and has been a champion on hunger-relief issues and immigration reform.

Places to learn

While there are plenty of panels, presentations and demos in the three exhibit halls, the Show also offers an enhanced Expo + Education badge this year. This badge gives attendees access to more focused learning and connections through 40 operator-led sessions in a distraction-free setting just off the Show floor.

Topics cover AI challenges, understanding Gen Z, hiring and retention, cybersecurity and menu efficiencies. Other perks of the badge include exclusive roundtable discussions and networking refreshment breaks.

Dine at Chicago’s female-led independents

For the first time, the Show is partnering with Let’s Talk Womxn on five curated dinners showcasing women restaurateurs. The collaborative dinners will be hosted at a selection of Chicago restaurants on Sunday, May 19 at 7 p.m. Instead of securing a hard-to-get reservation, interested attendees simply purchase a ticket through EventBrite.

The experiences, which range from $150-$200, feature diverse cuisines, including Mexican, Indian-Latin fusion, Vietnamese, modern French and Vegetarian. Guests can choose their own culinary adventure ahead of time, meet new industry colleagues over a chef-inspired dinner and listen as the hosts share insights into their professional journeys.

Winning innovators

Attendees can sample the products that earned 2024 FABI (food and beverage) awards at the new Connections space located in the Culinary Experience pavilion. Thirty-five groundbreaking products have been recognized and are available for tasting, including 10 singled out by the judges as “FABI Favorites.” Also new this year is an in-person presentation of FABI Awards on May 18 at 4:15 p.m. on The Beverage Room Stage. Awardees will be invited onstage to receive their award and pose for a photo.

On the equipment side, 25 Kitchen Innovations (KI) Awardees are being showcased in the South Hall in their own pavilion. The KI Awards program, known for defining the gold standard in cutting-edge foodservice equipment, is celebrating its 20th year at the 2024 Show. To get an inside look at the judges’ picks and the trends they’re tracking, plan on attending “The Kitchen of the Future: Kitchen Innovations Awardees Paving the Way for What’s Next” at The Culinary Experience Stage on Saturday, May 18 at 3:30 p.m., a panel moderated by Restaurant Business Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Maze.

Chefs show their stuff

Rick Bayless, the popular Chicago chef, restaurateur, TV personality and Mexican cuisine expert, is now as much a fixture at the Show as the dancing fountain at the entrance to McCormick Place. He’s back again this year with a culinary demo on Saturday morning. He leads off the active culinary and beverage schedule, but there are dozens of engaging chefs and mixologists who are giving live demos over the four days of the Show.

Tony Abou-Ganim, master mixologist, and Lynette Marrero, culinary cocktail maven, are among those holding forth on The Beverage Room Stage in Lakeside Center. And in The Culinary Experience demo area in Lakeside, attendees can catch the likes of chefs Karen Akunowicz, Christine Ha, Brian Duffy and Miguel Trinidad. Get there early to get a seat. There may even be samples.

There will be robots

The show floor will be chock full of technology companies showing off their latest products for both front- and back-of-the-house efficiencies. New companies will be featured at Startup Alley, and there’s a Tech Pavilion in the North Hall, but expect to see technology infused throughout the show floor, and not always from tech companies.

Avocados from Mexico (Booth 424, South), for example, will be demonstrating a “Glow Up your Menu” AI tool that will give restaurant operators menu ideas, with ingredient lists and images, as well as data insights about how those avocado dishes may trend with customers.

Square (Booth 5821) has a new kiosk coming out this summer, as well as a redesigned POS, scan-to-pay options and an updated orders tab.

Toast (Booth 5814) has some new innovations for its Digital Storefront and Marketing Suites, including an AI-powered writing tool for marketing materials.

There’s a CHEFTOP-X Digital.ID combi from UNOX Inc. (Booths 4196, 4855) that has an optical sensor that recognizes food and starts cooking programs automatically.

Plant power

There will be more plant-based products on the show floor than there are vegans in America, but still, they keep coming. This year look for products that resemble whole muscle cuts of meat.

FABI Award winner Chunk Foods (Booth 1284, South), for example, will be showing off its new Chunk Cubes and Chunk Slabs described as ideal for plant-based brisket, pastrami, smoking, grilling and carving tableside.

The Wienermobile

Kraft Heinz’ hotdog truck will be there (Lakeside) and you can tour it and wish you were an Oscar Mayer Wiener, while swinging on the Kraft Macaroni swing.

VIP treatment

New this year is a VIP Lounge for RB+ subscribers, but you’ll need to book your access pass at registration. There will be free WiFi, drinks, snacks and a private happy hour. But, best of all, you’ll be able to hang with the RB editors. And, if you’re nice to us, we’ll save you a spot in the Nathan’s Hot Dog line.

Resting weary bones

But if you can’t score a seat at one of the food or beverage demos or education sessions, have no fear. Due to popular demand, this year the Show folks requested that McCormick Place set up more benches throughout the massive space to take a breather and rest your weary feet.

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