Looking Back at Another NRA Show

Energy-efficiency and better use of labor were among the key themes running through the 2013 National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago.

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Well, another National Restaurant Association's annual trade show is behind us. My, how time flies by when you are having fun.

Although I created a plan to get the most out of my time at the show, as I suggested in my last post, I was able to get a lot done, just not as much as I had hoped.

I had the fortune to attend several events including Foodservice Equipment & Supplies' Dealer of the Year and Industry Awards Gala, and the Fast Casual "Top 100 Brands" awards dinner, where Fazoli's received the #1 fast-casual ranking for 2013. One good thing about attending the NRA Show is that there is never a shortage of networking opportunities, which means you should not have to dine alone if you play your cards right.
Additionally, I volunteered my time at the Foodservice Consultants Society International "Ask the Design Experts" Booths, where I got to spend time with personnel from several domestic and international concepts. The primary theme in these design consultation sessions focused on being able to drive efficient labor usage, customer service and enhanced facility design. Most of the concepts that visited were concerned about the future, including the impact to the labor line due to the U.S. healthcare mandate, and wanted to take preemptive and proactive action before they got hit harder.

As always, the Kitchen Innovations Pavilion showcased many new equipment ideas, some simple in nature, others a bit more complex, but all of them with the potential to impact the industry well in different areas including food safety, efficiency and quality, among others. One major theme I noticed this year was around energy conservation.

And let's not forget about the keynote speaker Howard Schultz from Starbucks who spoke about the importance of companies to balance the profits they are responsible to deliver to their shareholders with the need to do what is right for our society. I arrived 15 minutes before the session and was greeted by a mile long line of people waiting to get into the room.

Several of the equipment suppliers had slightly smaller booths than last year, since this was a NAFEM year, but were still able to convey their differentiating equipment and technologies. Most of the large equipment supplier booths did not have a shortage of representatives there able to discuss their wares with visitors.

I had the opportunity to meet with several large restaurant chains, and discuss their strategic plans for different efforts. In addition, this year's show featured a number of international operators looking for new concepts and ideas that could help them become more competitive and give them the edge in their respective markets. Beyond looking for new concepts, management at these international operators came looking for ideas to help rein in costs, including labor. No longer is labor the inexpensive commodity that it was outside of the United States. The feeling among the international attendees I spoke with was that labor costs were going to become a bigger factor in the not-so-distant future, with the potential to significantly impact their bottom line. Several of these concepts were considering the feasibility of bringing their concept into the United States, as others such as Pollo Campero and Giraffas have recently done.

Fast-casual concepts were also well represented in the show. Given that this segment is the industry darling at the moment, there seems to be a number of new players poised to enter the market and a few existing concepts contemplating switching to or adding as an option a fast-casual style of service.

So what was the mood from the participants? I would say overall positive and upbeat. Most realize that the industry is in a state of evolution and that as this evolution happens, flexibility and morphing of the concept has to follow suit in order to survive and thrive. Attendance from vendors and visitors suggests a positive outlook, since recent press reported an increase in attendance as well as more supplier booths.

If you missed this one, make it a point to attend the next one. It can help you become more competitive in your area of expertise. See you there in 2014.

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