Here is my highly opinionated, completely idiosyncratic handicapping of experiences from the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago. The candidates for inclusion where limited to what I saw and did, so there could be some stellar omissions. If one galls you, please let me know via e-mail, email@example.com.
Hottest trend evident at the show: Interest in catering, from operators of all shapes and sizes. Look for food trucks to plow into that market in a big way. Ditto for casual-dining chains. Packaging exhibitors played to the interest, as did newcomers like Nissan, which exhibited trucks, and software firms.
Best unsubstantiated rumor of the show: McDonald’s is among the chains considering a big push into catering.
Best party idea: The made-on-the-spot flipbook at the Marlin Breakfast. Attendees were invited to step over to a mock kitchen where they could pretend to be whipping up a dish. For seven seconds they were videoed, and the movie was turned into a flipbook that attendees could take with them.
Most adorable mascot at the show: The Land O’ Lakes gal who directed people to its breakfast event. Honorable mention: Spuddy Buddy, the cuddly, perennial favorite from the Idaho Potato Commission. The Spud-ster had to compete for attention this year with the giant potato on display at Idahoan Foods’ booth. But he’ll still get our hugs.
Outstanding maverick at a podium: Jimmy John Liautaud, who spoke with refreshing candor about how he operates his fast-growing Jimmy John’s chain. His stories ranged from telling a major potato chip manufacturer to fuck off, to selling unattractive deli ends late at night to heavy drinkers because, hey, “it’s not going to stay in their stomachs long in any case.” Other pearls he offered to illustrate his management style: “I am the master of toilet-bowl cleaning, baby,” and “I don’t have any education. I have to do what works.”
Best wine array at a show party: The spread at the International Corporate Chefs Association’s annual fete, which could’ve doubled as a top-drawer, big-ticket tasting. When they’re pouring Veuve Clicquot, pull up a glass. And don’t miss the crab claws, either.
Best cocktail: The pineapple margaritas at the Noble Color Party. So juicy you could have one for breakfast. Just a thought.
Best setting for a party: The rooftop bar at Zed 451.
Best dressed executive on the show floor: David Groll of McAlister’s. GQ needs to know about this guy. Even when he’s wearing chef’s whites he could pass for Thurston Howell III. Honorable mention: The Dot-It guy in royal-blue-checked pants. Clowns would look at that outfit and mutter, “Dude is stylin’!”
Bitterest pill to swallow: The NRA closing its board meeting to the press. Attending the general session, where each committee reports its doings to the board as a whole, was an invaluable way to keep apprised of the Association’s initiatives and challenges. Informing the industry about the activities of its largest and most important advocate was a point of pride, and my schedule was always built around the Sunday morning meeting. Why the secrecy now? After all, we’re members. Honorable mention: No longer being able to swipe a cup of Diet Coke of a counter as you’re dashing off to a booth. Samples are now dispensed through the Freestyle machines. The lines move quickly, and you have a far greater choice. But you do have to stop long enough to press the buttons. Second honorable mention: Nathan’s no longer providing a whole hot dog as a sample.
Most poignant moments: Hearing first-hand accounts of how our industry is providing veterans from the last two wars with the means to start a second career when they re-enter civilian life. During a session on recruiting vets as restaurant franchisees, one audience member explained that she was looking to enter the private sector of the business after 25 years of feeding fellow Marines. A former Air Force mechanic described how he’s started a coffee company. And a mother of two service people noted how she was there for more than just an opportunity to cover the session for one of the industry publications.
Best change evident at this year’s show: The casualization. Good-bye neck ties and dresses, hello comfortable yet casual business attire. Bonus trivia point: This is the first of my 32 NRA shows where I didn’t have to wear a suit, or even a tie.
Next year, shoeless!