6 takeaways from the first 2 days of the National Restaurant Show

And no, this account wasn’t written by an AI bot to ease two journalists’ lives. is an AI bartender that will quickly make drinks while providing some "witty" banter. / Photo by Jonathan Maze.

Two days through the restaurant industry’s biggest gathering, the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago, a few themes are clearly emerging. Here’s what struck our editors, and two veterans in particular, as they trawled the miles of booth and presentation space.

AI everything

The RB staff collectively has attended about 3,467 years of the Show. OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but we remember at least that many wild trends dominating the exhibit area, whether it was the latest wave of frozen yogurt or the rise of salad-making robots.

This year, it’s artificial intelligence. AI is everywhere at the Show, promising to take tasks away from employees so they “can concentrate on serving customers,” as the usual assessment holds. We have a tough time understanding how letting a machine take customers’ drive-thru orders is a high-touch development, but we digress.

In any event, this year’s show brought artificial intelligence to the task of making drinks. Bravely, we decided to check it out. Somewhat repeatedly, to be honest.

We had make us an Old Fashioned (yes, we took one for the team), and her drink-making skills were better than her speech skills, though we think the latter will likely improve.

But we were also intrigued by an AI trash can. The Coca-Cola booth featured an AI-powered recycling and trash bin that helpfully tells you whether that plastic cup is truly recyclable. The device is still in test, however.

Migrants and labor issues

During the keynote discussion on Sunday, restaurateur Danny Meyer noted the “crisis” of immigrants being shipped to cities around the country, including New York, to ease the burden on frequent arrival states like Texas, Arizona and Florida.

The migrants aren’t allowed to work, which is frustrating for restaurant operators like Meyer who could use the help. “There’s a big crisis with an enormous number of migrants” in New York City, Meyer said during the keynote with Slutty Vegan founder Pinky Cole and National Restaurant Association CEO Michelle Korsmo.

Labor, of course, continues to be a major theme of the conference. Korsmo noted that there are two open jobs in the U.S. for every worker available for hire.

Meyer acknowledged that he doesn’t know the best way to add more immigrants to the labor pool, but echoed operators' frustration that the federal government hasn’t hit on the means while the industry remains so short staffed.

He suggested training programs that could teach migrants skills in just a few weeks. 

Easy does it

If there’s an unofficial theme to this year’s show, it has to be simplification. Throughout the exhibit floor, the words “easy” and “simple” appear again and again on exhibitor signage, particularly atop booths showcasing technology of some sort.

Taken as a whole, the show underscores how complex the business of operating restaurants has become—and how strong of an imperative simplification is.

Ironically, one of the most effective means seems to be embracing ever more sophisticated technology. The come-on for many of the exhibitors was using state-of-the-art tech, including AI, to ease the jobs of human life forms.

Beware the photo op

The gravest danger for attendees walking the exhibit floor has to be the selfie. You’re ready to check out the automatic meatloaf maker at a booth when someone in front of you stop short for a snap in front of a giant turnip or the like. Navigating past a booth offering drink samples is particularly hazardous because of the spillage risk.

And if someone’s wrangling a selfie stick, get out of there pronto. No good can come of it. Local hospitals are likely keeping a running tally of photo injuries.

Challenge your DSR

Celebrity chef Brian Duffy offered some unsolicited advice to the crowd watching him prepare a stir-fried shrimp dish made with faux shrimp. If you want to stand out in your market, the former star of Bar Rescue said, offer something that no one else does.

A good way to do that, he continued, is to press your distributor sales rep for suggestions on products that aren’t being pushed by broadliners with a national scope precisely because the items’ popularity is local or regional. “If you don’t ask them, they’re not going not tell you about those products,” Duffy said.

‘Is that who I think it is?’

Not all the big names at this year’s Silver Plate Awards were there to accept the honor. The International Foodservice Manufacturers Association tweaked the ceremony this year to spotlight major influences on the award recipients. Each winner was introduced by an individual they’d designated as a key mentor. In at least one instance, that role was filled by a direct competitor of the recipient.

The intro of Papa Johns CEO Rob Lynch, winner of the Silver Plate in the Limited Service Chains category, was Paul Brown, CEO of Inspire Brands, the parent of such quick-service operations as Dunkin’, Jimmy John’s and Sonic. Brown was Lynch’s boss when the latter was president of the Arby’s chain, another Inspire holding.

Brown aired a detailed account of what Lynch had done for Inspire before leaving for Papa John’s, a move the Inspire CEO characterized as both a delight and the source of considerable sadness.

Brown was preceded at the podium by Liz Smith, the former CEO of Outback Steakhouse parent Bloomin’ Brands, who introduced her successor, Dave Deno.

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