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I learned two lessons at the 90th National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show, which was in Chicago from May 16 to 19. First, I got to physically see just how huge the restaurant industry is. Conceptually, of course, the size of the industry is fairly obvious, but knowing it and trying to take in the scope of products being sold at the thousands of booths at the NRA Show are two very different things. Second, food quality lags far, far behind profit as the primary concern of most in the industry. Again, probably a lesson most of us intuitively understand, but one that was really slammed home as I spent about five hours making my way around the NRA Show. Given the breadth of the show, that was not nearly enough time to see the whole thing, but it was more than enough to discover some new foods and products that caught my eye.

The Food

Those who go to the National Restaurant Show looking for gourmet treats are largely going to be disappointed as it is far from a high-end food fest. There were a few exceptions: the Australia booth served bites of abalone; Canadian Cove dished out excellent mussels; and Nueske's, producers of some of the best bacon on the planet, introduced a new cherrywood smoked bacon that is already being sold to restaurants and will be available to the rest of us this fall.

20090527-nra-show-gelato.jpgThe one food trend I did pick up on was the continuing growth of gelato in the U.S. The official Exhibit Guide lists 22 different companies under gelato, but some of those might have been manufacturers of gelato-making equipment. Still, I tried at least six different gelatos at the show. Some were from companies that actually make gelato from scratch, while others were made out of gelato mixes, a product I did not realize existed. Whether fresh or from a mix, they were all good, but I was surprised at the differences in textures. A couple of the gelatos were, to my palate, indistinguishable from standard ice cream (texturally, the primary difference between ice cream and gelato is that ice cream tends to have more air). In any event, the surprisingly vast array of gelatos at the show means we can all expect to see an even greater increase in the number of restaurants that offer gelato.

Notable Products

20090527-nra-show-cheese.jpgAmong the hundreds of food items that were available at the show, a few unique items caught my eye. I was mildly enamored with and amused by the new Unwrap & Roll from BelGioioso Cheese. This is a sheet of mozzarella that is rolled up and then packaged with the idea that consumers can buy a sheet of mozzarella that they can cut as needed or simply top with other foods and roll up, thereby creating a mozzarella wrap. Those too lazy to add the ingredients to make a roll will be happy to know that the company makes a mozzarella roll with prosciutto and basil already wrapped inside.

Fans of Cherry Dr. Pepper, Orange Crush, and A&W Root Beer will be happy to know that Vita Food Products, a company best known for selling jars of herring, is introducing dessert toppings in those flavors. Origami Foods was there trying to sell people on their product: origami wraps. These thin, pliable sheets of food were available in a variety of sweet and savory flavors. I tried the carrot one and the strawberry. The texture, which was like a soft fruit roll, was fine, but I thought better suited for the desserts than the snack foods.

20090527-nra-show-honey.jpgMy favorite edible item at the show were the new Honey Drops from Honibe. Honey Drops are pure honey that have been transformed from a sticky syrup into a non-stick piece of hard honey. They are being marketed as something to drop into hot beverages, based on the belief that there is a significant group of people out there who really don't like stirring actual honey into their drinks or risking getting their hands a little sticky. The folks at Honibe may be right, but I think they would do much better selling the Honey Drops as candy. Whatever the use, I thought they were delicious.

There were a lot of drinks at the show, but nearly all of them were at the International Wine, Spirits and Beer Show, which was part of the NRA Show, but on a separate floor that I did not get a chance to see. I did get to try a couple of waters that I would never pay for, and I spoke to one of the Coke representatives who confirmed my fear that there are absolutely no plans to make Lemon Fanta available in the U.S.

20090527-nra-show-nathans.jpgIn addition to the food suppliers, there were a number of companies at the show looking to franchise. These companies included two hot dog titans, Nathan's and
Vienna Beef, both of whom were handing out free samples and were among the most popular booths I saw at the show. I came upon the Vienna Beef booth first and was thrilled to a taste of the incredible hot dogs they were passing out. Not long afterward I saw Nathan's, which I did not partake in because it would not be fair to that company to eat their hot dog so soon after indulging in the vastly superior product from Vienna Beef.

Equipment, Services, and More

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The bulk of the National Restaurant Association Show was like living inside a Ron Popeil infomercial on steroids. The focus was on making every aspect of the restaurant industry (except food) bigger, faster, and stronger. Any and every type of equipment and service was represented at the show. There were companies selling refrigerators, ovens, mixers, plates, cutlery, linens, export services, kitchen scales, sinks, freezers, juicers, ice machines, ATMs, point of sale systems, interior design services, architecture services, tabletop displays, loyalty rewards programs, coffee machines, signage, cleaning supplies, grills, flag poles, and patio furniture. In each category, there was more than one company there with a booth, and I am sure there were a host of categories that I glossed over while making my way around the show.

As a first-time attendee I was completely overwhelmed by the scope of what I saw, but more seasoned show-goers had an entirely different reaction. While there were plenty of people stopping at the various food booths picking up free samples, the folks selling equipment—particularly large products—were looking pretty lonely. I suspect this was due to a couple of factors. For one, the show was significantly smaller this year. Multiple vendors told me it was noticeably smaller and according to reports, attendance dropped 24 percent this year. But even those restaurateurs who made the trip to Chicago this year were probably not looking to make large capital investments.

20090527-nra-show-flavorshot.jpgI talked to a man who was at the show trying to sell new fountain drink dispensers that have the added feature of being able to add shots of cherry or vanilla flavoring to whatever flavor of pop the customer is getting. He said his customers were not looking to add new equipment these days and even if equipment breaks, people are looking to spend a few hundred dollars to fix things rather than thousands to replace them even if those fixes are obviously temporary.

Notable Gadgets

20090527-nra-show-mistystix.jpgI was obviously not there to stock up on restaurant equipment, so I was able to take the time to look at a few gadgets that caught my eye. Some, like mistystix, were more for fun than anything else. Developed by a young business school student who lost his job thanks to mass layoffs at his company, these plastic swizzle stick-type products have space at the bottom that opens up for bartenders to put in a piece of food-grade dry ice. The result is misty drinks that I think could actually work at cheesy resorts and bars.

Other unique products included the Popcake, which is billed as the world's first automatic pancake making machine; the Magic Pop, a machine that shoots out fresh rice cakes; and Flavorburst, a machine that mixes soft serve ice cream and a customer's choice of additional flavors.

My favorite new product at the show was the Pig Out Spit Roaster, a propane-powered pig roaster from a new family-owned Canadian company. The Spit Roaster, which can cook a 100-pound pig in five hours, was designed for caterers, country clubs and resorts, and retails for $5,000. In addition to roasting a pig, it can also work as a rotisserie and as a grill, complete with steam plans. The company also sells a slightly smaller version for the home user.

Despite the obvious impact of the economy, I was still blown away by the NRA Show. The variety of products was staggering. Sure, some of them are unnecessary and easy to mock, but if even a fraction of them help restaurants improve the quality of their food, then we all get to reap the benefits.

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