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Automation tops list of tech to check at this year’s National Restaurant Association Show

Robots and AI will have a strong presence in the Tech Pavilion this year as operators look for solutions to labor and other challenges.
Tech Pavilion booth
Photograph courtesy of the National Restaurant Association Show

Technology has long been an area of focus at the National Restaurant Association Show. The event’s 30,000-square-foot Tech Pavilion sells out of vendor booths every year, and 2022 is no different.

“It just continues to be a hot area and a growth area for the Show,” said Tom Cindric, president of exhibitions for the Show’s parent, Winsight.

But the tech that attendees will encounter at this year’s event will look a little different than past installments. After all, the industry has changed a lot since the last in-person Show in 2019. 

Expect an emphasis on robots and artificial intelligence as restaurants search for solutions to their two biggest problems right now: rising costs and shrinking staffs. 

“In the past, a lot of the tech [focus] was on mobile apps and delivery applications and POS systems, right?” Cindric said. “And you’re starting to see really more with robots, robotics, and then AI that’s being used to help with customer interaction.”

Automation has started to take hold at restaurants amid a historic staffing shortage that struck just as the industry was emerging from the worst of the pandemic. With operators looking to make do with fewer workers or ease the burden on existing staff, some are using robots to handle repetitive tasks.

“Restaurants are struggling to hire people and struggling to keep a workforce,” Cindric said. “The negative side is then people say that [automation] starts to eliminate jobs. It’s one of those things where technology can actually help, right?” 

The Show is actively working to get more robotics suppliers at the event in the future, he said. It’s even considering creating a separate robotics pavilion to spotlight those companies.

It’s also expanding Startup Alley, an area that in the past has been used to showcase fledgling tech companies. This year, it will grow to feature startups from the realms of food and equipment, highlighting the burst of innovation that has happened across the industry amid the pandemic.

As in past years, technology will be woven throughout the Show’s various educational sessions, touching everything from labor to the supply chain. There are many tech-specific programs as well, including a ghost kitchen workshop and a series dedicated to helping operators navigate the sheer glut of technology products out there.

Tech will also be in the foreground during the Show’s keynote on Saturday afternoon. Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian will talk about disruption and how restaurants can both create it and embrace it.

“Certainly technology is one of those ways to help solve some of the [disruption], and tech, quite frankly, is some of the disruption that’s going on,” Cindric said. 

The National Restaurant Association Show starts Saturday and runs through Tuesday at McCormick Place in Chicago. Known as the largest annual gathering of foodservice professionals in the Western hemisphere, it draws attendees from across the foodservice spectrum and hosts more than 1,300 exhibitors. It has been canceled in each of the past two years due to the pandemic.

The Show is owned by Winsight, the parent company of Restaurant Business.

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