This year's National Restaurant Association Show aims for a harder business focus

The emphasis will be on practicality, right down to the cooking demos and social events, according to the event's planners.
Kitchen Innovations
Photograph courtesy of The Show

In the three years since the National Restaurant Association Show drew the industry to Chicago, the business of running restaurants has changed in profound ways. The opportunities and challenges left by the pandemic will be squarely in focus when operators reconvene May 21 for the trade’s largest procurement, networking and educational event, according to the show’s organizers.

They predict that attendees will be struck by an emphasis on practicality—the products, ideas and connections that will enable them to grow their operations in the near term.

Even one of the four-day event’s major social components will provide a serving of business intelligence. An evening reception called Industry Night Out, scheduled for the largest rooftop deck in the country, will focus on food and beverage pairings, enabling attendees to file away ideas as they network and take in the Chicago skyline.

Similarly, this year’s event will again showcase cooking demos from some of the nation’s most renowned chefs, including TV stars such as Andrew Zimmern and Maria Loi. But mixed into their culinary advice and insights will be more than a dash of business information, such as managing food costs, says Lisa Malikow, SVP of event operations & programming.

One area where operators will readily find help is in navigating the disrupted supply chain, Malikow says. She notes how the procurement process has been complicated by ongoing shortages of products and crimps in the traditional means of getting the items to a restaurant’s back door.

“You’re forced to diversify the suppliers you need because you can’t use the same traditional single source,” Malikow says. “That’s easier said than done. At the show, we’ll have more than 1,700 companies gathered in one spot. You can probably see every company you need to readily fulfill your needs.”

There is also the serendipity factor. Even veteran showgoers will likely find surprises within an exhibitor area that’s larger than some towns.

“When you experience the trade show, it’s not going to feel like it did before,” Malikow continues. “One-third of our floor space is comprised of companies that have never exhibited before, some of which are brand new companies that have been born out of need and certain pain points. It’s not all about walking in and seeing the same exhibitors.”

One of the formatting changes at this year’s show will be holding the dozens of education sessions on the exhibit floor, a move that spares attendees from having to dash up to conference rooms on a different floor. 

Those education sessions are also likely to feel more how-to and practical, according to Malikow.

“A really changed effort on our part was offering specific solutions through the voice of the operators themselves,” she says. “It’s for operators by operators.”

The topics range from takeout to catering, cannabis-infused beverages and a reality check on plant-forward products. The presentations are organized into tracks, enabling executives to find the sessions most relevant to their functions or needs.

In addition to presenting the usual slew of breakout sessions, this year’s show will feature workshops on ghost kitchens and virtual concepts; technology; and fostering leadership.

One thing attendees won’t find is a single long presentation on labor, arguably the industry’s top issue at the moment. Instead, Malikow says, that issue is addressed not only in a series of presentations organized into a track that extends through the conference, but in sessions focused on other topics, since it colors every aspect of the business.

“You’ll see that in our technology sessions and even our culinary sessions—how do you deal with some of these workforce issues?” she says. Content planners worked with presenters to ensure they hit on the major aspects of the labor situation, she adds.

Despite the emphasis on the practical, Malikow says, the show will aim to deliver inspiration through an unusual keynote speaker: Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit and the venture capital firm Seven Seven Six.  He will address how business disruptions such as the emergence of cryptocurrency are changing the restaurant business.

“Alexis Ohanian is really a new twist for us,” says Malikow. “He’s probably the youngest speaker we’ve had on the stage. The topic was borne from the idea of not just looking at the changes that are being forced on business by disruption, but how do you use that disruption to build your business?”

The National Restaurant Association Show is presented by Winsight Media, the parent company of Restaurant Business.

The event is slated for May 21-24 at McCormick Place. More information is available here.

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