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The National Restaurant Show confronts a changed industry

The annual exhibition of the industry’s latest equipment kicked off Saturday for the first time in three years. But the industry it serves is not the same as it was the last time the event was held.
National Restaurant Show
Photo by Jonathan Maze

The National Restaurant Show kicked off on Saturday, for the first time since 2019. The 50,000 or so exhibitors and attendees expected for the four-day event will encounter a show that is much like it was back then. There are the rows of the latest equipment and food products and stalwarts like Ecolab and Pepsi and CocaCola and Sterno, not to mention the hot dog purveyors drawing long lines of hungry attendees.

Throughout the event, attendees can see the latest trends, where they get a first-hand look at the industry’s evolution. Yet this year, perhaps unlike any other, they will see a business that is vastly different than the last time the event was held.

The pandemic that caused the show’s cancellation in 2020 and 2021 devastated much of the industry. The business is functionally smaller than it was three years ago. But it is also much different. Operators are combatting soaring food and labor costs and can’t always get the people or supplies they need. Customers have changed, far more interested in technology and takeout than they were before.

All of that has created a show catering largely to a business that is less about serving the customer inside the restaurant and more about serving them as efficiently as possible from any one of several different formats. Perhaps it is inside the restaurant. But it is far more often outside, perhaps through the drive-thru or mobile order or delivery.

Technology, in fact, has become table stakes, which was not always the case. During an interview at the show, Restaurant Brands CEO Jose Cil told me that the industry had been slow to adopt technology in large part because it had relatively little need to. That changed after the pandemic, which forced companies into more online ordering and delivery, lest they get no sales at all. And then when the labor shortage hit and costs rose, more operators began to see the potential for a return on their investment.

Nowhere was this seen more than with the robots.

Robots have long been a feature of the show, though more often as a curiosity, akin to a concept car display at an auto show. They attracted gawkers and news stories and only rarely find their way into an actual restaurant—even as other industries have used them for years. Restaurants simply did not have a reason to add them.

This year, robots were everywhere. And this year, those companies selling robots have a chance of making an actual sale. Companies such as Chili’s are actively experimenting with robot waiters in 50 locations. “Our robot, Rita, has been promoted to food runner,” Wyman Roberts, Chili’s soon-to-be-former CEO, told investors earlier this month, according to a transcript on the financial services site Sentieo. “She does a fantastic job and our guests love her.”

Robot

The Lucki restaurant service robot./Photo by Jonathan Maze.

Similar robots have already been put to work at some independent restaurants that realize they could take away some of the work normally done by people, thus reducing their need for staff.

Robots were just one of the more obvious industry evolutions on display. Yet the industry’s changes were also evident throughout the show and in more subtle methods, such as the connectivity of everyday pieces of equipment such as fryers or even beverage dispensers. CocaCola’s new Freestyle 8100, which targets back-of-house users such as drive-thrus, connects directly into the point-of-sale system and can automatically queue orders as they come in.

Demand for efficiency was evident even in devices targeting more traditional customers. Take, for instance, the SmartBrew, an automated brew system that can turn any bar into a brewpub, takes only 150 square feet of space and needs only four hours a week to manufacture a batch. Our reporter verified that the device indeed provided a consistent product.

SmartBrew

The SmartBrew brewing system./Photo by Peter Romeo.

The changed industry could also be found in even more subtle ways, such as the packaging that was on display. Takeout packaging quietly had a major presence at the show—it’s been the subject of massive amounts of innovation in recent years as that business has exploded. And more of those products are sustainable or even reusable—such as cups and containers offered by a company called Sili Pint, which makes its items out of silicone. Those containers could make their way to college campuses sooner rather than later.

NRA Show cups

Silicone cups by Sili Pint./Photo by Patricia Cobe.

There are many more innovations on display at the show that demonstrate the industry’s evolution. And it remains to be seen how many of these will become commonplace at the nation’s restaurants. But it’s clear that the business is in a different era than it was in 2019.

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