What we liked at this year's National Restaurant Association Show, and what we didn't

RB editors dished on everything at this year's show, from square footage and pancake art to fake bartenders, seaweed and business cards. And Froot Loops.
National restaurant association show
The morning rush to the National Restaurant Show. These people will be tired in no time. / Photo by Jonathan Maze.

The team from Restaurant Business and FoodService Director spent four days covering every inch of McCormick Place during the National Restaurant Association Show this week.

During this event, we typically share with one another what we liked about the show and what we did not like. This year, we’re putting our views into print. So, here are a few things our editors liked and didn’t like about this year’s show. The group dishes on everything from square footage to fake bartenders, seaweed and business cards. Oh, and Froot Loops.

Liked: Mystery flavors. I haven’t had a frozen slush-type beverage in probably 40 years because I’m old and not all that fun but during a Coke tour I would not stop drinking their “mystery” flavor of frozen Fanta. It was dark, almost black, and I was desperately trying to figure out the flavor in between presentations about Costa Coffee and AI garbage cans. In the end, I made my guess: grape blueberry. I have no idea if I’m right. But they have yet to tell me so maybe I’ll just declare myself correct anyway. That’s how I win most board games.

Didn’t like:“Farm-to-table” takeoffs. I confess that I have little patience for marketing and corporate speak (my Microsoft avatar is the word “ideation” crossed out). As such, the term “farm to table” has always driven me insane, because all food goes from farm to table. But now we’re getting more takeoffs on this nonsense, such as “bean to cup” or “from seed to fork.” Shoot me now.

Bonus like: Hot dogs. I had a long day on Sunday, was hungry, and needed something comforting and stopped by the Nathan’s booth for a much-needed hot dog. Thank you, hot dog people.

Jonathan Maze

Liked: Pancake art. One highlight was the pancake artists at the Kodiak Cakes booth. The concept was fun, and the artists were talented and willing to take on a challenge. When it was my turn at the booth, the pancake artists used colored pancake syrup to recreate a picture of my two cats and the art came together so well, I was hesitant to eat the pancake. I thought this was an engaging way to highlight Kodiak’s product.

Didn’t like: Fake bartenders. My least favorite thing at the show was Cecilia the AI bartender. I found her a bit off-putting and the jokes she tried to make just landed as awkward. However, the drink itself was good and service was very quick.

Reyna Estrada

Liked: Thor’s Skyr. The skyr smoothies at the Thors Skyr booth were some of my favorite things I tasted on the show floor. Pronounced skee-er, skyr is a Icelandic dairy product that is similar to yogurt. Along with smoothies, the Thor’s Skyr team also served skyr cheesecake, parfaits and more. Everything was delicious.

Didn’t like: Also fake bartenders. Perhaps one of the more underwhelming things seen on the show floor would be the robotic bartender, Cecilia.ai. While she can offer beverage suggestions and mix up a drink in a matter of minutes, her graphics looked dated and some of her body gestures, such as winking at guests, felt unnatural and awkward. For the time being, I’ll be sticking with human bartenders.

Benita Gingerella

(Editor’s note: Cecilia apparently broke some hearts.)

Liked: FABI placement. It was a good move to spotlight the top FABI award winners with a scheduled tasting near The Culinary Experience stage. It brought more attention to the educational session in which several judges talked about the trends and standouts of this year’s competition, and attendees had a chance to sample the products directly afterward. A fave of mine was Spring in a Bottle, a non-alcoholic sparkling rose wine from Wolffer Estates.

Didn’t like: Walking. The Show exhibits and sessions cover 659,000 square feet at McCormick Place but there’s no place to sit after you’ve hoofed it over from Lakeside and need 5 minutes to rest your feet before tackling the South Hall. A few more chairs and benches, please! And phone charging stations or even electrical outlets were scarcer than hen’s teeth. Can’t one of the dozens of tech exhibitors sponsor some charging stations?

Patricia Cobe

Liked: Seaweed. Blue Evolution, which said it was the first certified organic supplier of farm-raised seaweedfrom Alaska and Mexico, had a number of products, from dried seaweed as a spice powder to fresh blanched seaweed. The booth was sampling a vegan butter (Miyoko’s) with something added to give it a smoky flavor and chopped fresh seaweed. Spread on a cracker, it was phenomenal. Cultivating seaweed is good for the planet because it naturally sucks carbon from the ocean. And it’s rich in nutrients. 

Bonus like: Froot Loops. Also, I tasted a Froot Loops-flavored Icee (J&J Foods), scheduled to debut next year, that was surprisingly good. They really nailed the flavor, accenting the lemon notes to make it particularly refreshing. It was probably not rich in nutrients or good for the planet. 

Didn’t like: Eating like a whale. Krill Arctic Foods presented tinned krill meat—yes, what the whales eat. It has the consistency of chopped clams, and can be dressed in a salad, like tuna. On a cracker it was, well, a bit fishy. I’m not sure it would be the star at a tinned fish bar, but it could be a novelty. 

Bonus didn’t like: Waste. It’s hard to get around the fact that the National Restaurant Association Show creates a mind-boggling amount of waste. Trash cans were full, though clearly the convention center staff was working hard to maintain them. Sure, some sample containers were compostable, but everything was mixed together and likely ended up in the same landfill. More could be done to claim what is recyclable or compostable (if foodservice packaging even can be composted in Chicago). 

Lisa Jennings

Liked: Apps for employees. It’s becoming clear that employees are as important to restaurants as customers. Many of the products that stood out to me at the show were related to making employees better and happier in their jobs. There were apps designed to improve training, ease scheduling, increase communication and get workers paid faster. Most live right on employees’ phones and mimic the look and feel of social media apps. They will be crucial tools for keeping employees engaged—especially younger ones.

Didn’t like:The death of the business card. No one has business cards anymore, myself included. This is apparently due to COVID and a shift to more business being done digitally. But nothing beats the real thing at a big event like the restaurant show. Sure, you can have someone scan a QR code, add your contact to their phone and hope to find it later, but that’s roughly a million times more complicated than handing someone a card. As is so often the case, the original solution was the best one. Let’s go back to it.

Joe Guszkowski

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