That familiar foot pain is back, and I still haven’t shaken my persona non grata status at the Nathan’s booth (like there’s really a Chicago law on how many franks you can give away to one person). But there were some definite surprises to this year’s National Restaurant Show:
It was a high-commerce show. There’s no doubt that turnout was down considerably from prior years. But vendors say the restaurateurs on the show floor were there to do business. Ones who I knew cited lists of what they wanted to see, from dishes to desserts to new apple products. It seems the economic downturn filtered out the half-hearted shoppers who really came for the free pens and food giveaways, or to say hello to old friends. The ones who still came were there to buy, an assertion heard repeatedly.
Even advocates are airing second thoughts about always buying local. Heightened interest in buying seasonal produce or other types of supplies from local providers was plainly evident during educational presentations or even off-the-cuff conversations. But some converts voiced second thoughts. For one thing, they said, locally grown doesn’t always equate to better quality or flavor. Others noted that some jurisdictions are now requiring foodservice operators that do business with the government to buy equipment and supplies from concerns in the area. That can take quality considerations out of the process, and the price could be a wallop if there's insufficient competition to hold down the charges.
Green and grey can co-exist. Most of the educational sessions I’d selected to attend were focused on green matters, rousing fears of being surrounded by skateboarders in iPod buds who’d call me Gramps. Yet the sessions, which tended to draw well, were attended by the tattooed and un-pierced alike. Interest in sustainability may still be more common among younger dudes and dudettes, but the industry’s green movement is snagging interest from all age groups.
Remember swine flu? The big fear of a few weeks earlier seemed like a dim memory during the show. Sure, there were the 130 hand-sanitizer dispensers that Ecolab had installed for the event, and clearly they were getting a workout. But I had only one person who balked at shaking hands, and I didn’t see one mask. Nor was the matter a common topic of conversation. I attended one education session on H1N1, and it was sparsely attended.
Viral marketing has arrived for foodservice. One of the most-talked-about presentations during Convention Week was the explanation of how a supplier called BlendTec had created a global marketing campaign with a $50 budget. As executives explained to the Marketing Executives Group , whose conference leads into the NRA Show, the solution for the company was YouTube. It posted videos that showed a lab-coated representative using a BlendTec blender to grind up things like an iPhone. Before long, fans were contacting the firm with requests of what they wanted to see minced.
The gee-wiz aspect of the campaign was demonstrated at MEG by a BlendTec representative, who turned a garden-variety garden rake into sawdust with the blender he had on stage. As a gift, he was given a box of chattering teeth--which he then put into the blender.
I didn’t attend the MEG conference, which is off the record for reporters in any case. But I heard about it from a number of people who attended. Virally, you might say.