At the recent 91st Annual National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show and the International Wine, Spirits and Beer Event (IWSB), for the second consecutive year I was left in awe of the sheer size of the restaurant industry. I hate to repeat the theme I hit on last year, but the fact remains that while I understood going into the show that restaurateurs have to deal with a host of issues beyond food, wandering among the 1,700 exhibitors in 480,000-square-feet of show space in Chicago's McCormick Place is something entirely different.
From carpeting to ceiling fixtures, from menus to check presenters, from every appliance imaginable to outdoor signage, every single aspect of building a restaurant business is well represented at the show. That's not to say there was no food to be found.
There was more than enough to gorge on, although the vast majority of it fell into three categories: appetizers, desserts and frozen fast food. The exceptions were some specialty foods and booths representing entire countries, most notably New Zealand and Korea. There was far more to see at the show than can be reported in a blog post (you can find a complete list here. Instead of trying to cover it all, here's a rundown of the 11 most fun and delicious things I saw at the show.
1. The Chork
If all is right in the world, The Chork will debut at a Panda Express-type place near you very soon. It starts out as either a fork or training chopsticks (users choice), but hardcore chopstick users can easily split the thing in half and go to town on their General Tso's chicken.
2. Fresh Ginger Ginger Ale
Restaurateur, chef and author Bruce Cost debuted his Fresh Ginger Ginger Ale last winter and ginger lovers need to find this stuff and try it. The sweetness is cane sugar and all of the ginger flavor comes from fresh ginger, not from ginger oil or oleoresin that apparently everyone else uses. Fresh Ginger Ginger Ale comes in three flavors: original ginger, pomegranate (with hibiscus), and Jasmine Green Tea. The original was a tad harsh for me, but I'm a relatively recent convert to the joys of ginger. I found the other two flavors to be exceptional.
3. Coca-Cola Freestyle
Coke showed off its new Coca-Cola Freestyle, a fountain machine that serves over 100 different beverages. The machine, which has successfully tested in Atlanta and Southern California and is on its way to Chicago and other markets, features a number of different basic types of drink along with a variety of flavor cartridges that can squirt some added taste to your beverage.
So, for example, if you push the button indicating you want Coke, your next step is deciding whether you want to add cherry, grape, raspberry, etc. Inexplicably, there is no lemon cartridge which means Americans will continue to have to dream of the day that Lemon Fanta is available in this country.
4. Gibby Dog
I'll admit I was more than a little skeptical when I saw the people from Gibby Dog proclaiming their product to be "world famous." Most of the food at the NRA Show is far from high-end. There were multiple foods that will find their homes in truck stops across the country and I figured the Gibby Dog was in that group. I was dead wrong. These cheese-filled hot dogs, wrapped in bacon and deep fried, are absolutely delicious.
5. Spinfresh Fryer
From Perfect Fry, makers of ventless countertop deep-fryers, comes Spinfresh, a fryer that ends the cooking process with a basket coming out of the oil and spinning to get rid of much of the excess oil.
The idea is you get perfectly fried food but with less fat. The fries I tried from it confirmed that these are not headed to higher end restaurants but they were certainly edible on the level of bowling alley and school cafeteria fries.
6. Kona Blue Water Farms
While many of us continue to eat fish that are not sustainable and/or are harvested with techniques that do significant environmental damage, there are people out there working to make sure people can responsibly satisfy their sushi cravings. Kona Kampachi, the yellowtail from Kona Blue Water Farms, is sustainably farmed in pens in the ocean half a mile off the Hawaiian coast.
The high fat content of 30% (salmon is 10 to 20%) gives the fish a rich delicious flavor in both samples I tried, one piece of sashimi and one cooked in a skillet with no added butter or oil.
7. Suzumo Nigiri and Maki Makers
Nigiri and Maki machines from Suzumo were amazing. The company has been making "sushi robots" in Japan for about 50 years and has been active in the U.S. for less than five. Both machines I tried samples from turned out perfect pieces every time. If an affordable home version of one of these is possible, these guys are sitting on a goldmine.
8. Tanka Bites and Bars
Tanka Bites and Tanka Bars from Native American Natural Foods, a company based on the Pine Ridge Reservation, are outstanding jerky-like bars and bites that are made from dried buffalo and dried cranberry. The rich, sweet and salty snacks come in both regular and spicy varieties, and the latter may well be my new favorite dried meat treat. I hadn't heard of them before the show, but they are already available in more than 3,500 stores.
9. Engreener Fruit Cleaner
The Engreener has yet to hit the market, but when it does, anyone who wants to drop about $130 will have some really clean fruits and vegetables with ease thanks to "ozone cleaning and ultrasonic waves." Basically, you put the thing in a bowl of water with your produce, turn it on, and after a couple of minutes, most bacteria will be killed.
The Korean product can also be used to clean toys, bottles and, theoretically, anything else you can stick in a bowl of water. I don't envision this product being too successful, but something about it drew me in.
10. Vplenish Vitamin Supplement
Vplenish is a daily vitamin supplement that the owners hope will be as common as sweetener packets on restaurants. The tasteless water-soluble powder can be sprinkled on anything, even a Gibby Dog, to give diners a small health boost.
Patents are still pending so they would not give me details on exactly what vitamins are in the Vplenish, though the package identifies it as being a "daily C & B supplement." The plan is to sell them exclusively to restaurants at a cost of one cent per packet, and to give one away to kids for every one sold.
11. Ridgefield's Frozen Fruit Juice Treats
Frozen fruit juice treats from Ridgefield's might have been the most surprisingly delicious thing I tried at the NRA Show. Made in an ice cream plant from 100% fruit juice, a patented bonding agent and some extra vitamins, and without any added sugar, they were shockingly smooth and seriously delicious. They're marketed for kids as a healthy snack and for nursing homes as a way to help with hydration of residents, but these low-calorie desserts should end up with much broader success.