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A look back at the NRA Show

A look back at the NRA Show

Charlie Rose, host of “The Charlie Rose Show” and keynote speaker of this year’s National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show, noted that restaurants are key meeting places for Americans’ most important conversations and experiences.

Fittingly, the foodservice industry’s largest annual gathering once again brought operators together to learn how to serve their businesses and their customers better.

Throughout the four-day conference held at Chicago’s McCormick Place, industry advocates and operators stressed the importance of being proactive in the face of a business climate complicated by such things as the fledgling economic recovery, social media, growing government regulation and changing culinary trends.

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An inquisitive mind, not just tenacity, is an essential trait for any successful restaurateur, Rose said in his speech.

“I’m in the questions business,” he said. “Curiosity has led people to places they never knew they could go until they tried and experimented. Make curiosity your closest friend.”

Whether at educational sessions or in one-on-one interactions at exhibitor booths, attendees had plenty of chances to learn more about ways to succeed in today’s operating environment.

Legislation and government regulation were prominent topics all week. NRA chairman Michael Gibbons criticized the potentially devastating effects of health care reform on the restaurant business during his introduction of Rose, but he also touted the NRA’s proactive solution, its “Restaurant Health Care Alliance” with UnitedHealthcare. That initiative, which starts with pilot programs in Pennsylvania and Colorado, aims to bring health insurance to the 4 million to 6 million foodservice employees who currently lack coverage.

Part of the recently passed health care legislation includes a national menu-labeling standard. Industry advocates stressed the importance of communicating the foodservice perspective to state and federal officials in order to lobby for “reasonable basis” protection from litigation and clearer definitions for what’s required of operators. Again, being proactive is key, noted one operator.

“Choice is critical,” Bo Bryant, senior director of government relations for McDonald’s, said during the “Menu Labeling: Are You Equipped for the New Labeling Laws” panel. “Who would have thought 10 years ago that McDonald’s would sell more apples or salads than any other restaurant brand in the world?”

There were just as many suggestions for communicating with customers as with lawmakers during the NRA Show, including taking the brand to them directly on wheels. Mobi Munch, a new company that operates its own gourmet-food trucks and consults chefs on how to develop their own mobile concepts, had a presence at the show floor with its Ludo Bites truck. In the adjacent space, Milwaukee-based restaurateur Scott Baitinger parked his Street-Za pizza truck and also promoted his new book “#TwitterWorks,” which he co-authored with Joe Sorge, owner of four restaurants in Milwaukee.

Social media continued to be a major theme running throughout the show. A panel discussion on “Driving Foot Traffic with the Latest Social-Media Tools,” featuring Andrew Mason of Groupon and Tristan Walker of Foursquare, was filled to capacity. Another session on “Making a Big Production” and spreading a restaurant’s brand image through traditional and social media, moderated by Chicago-based restaurateur Billy Dec, produced a flurry of tweets, even by people who weren’t in attendance at McCormick Place but were following the conversation online.

And the NRA looked to generate its own buzz with its first “Foodie Flash Mob,” a choreographed dance to Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” orchestrated to close out Tuesday morning’s final sessions at McCormick Place’s Grand Concourse.

But attendees did more than dance, eat, learn and network. They also came together to recognize their peers who have made lasting contributions to the industry. The National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation welcomed three people into its College of Diplomates and honored industry luminaries Ferdinand Metz and S. Truett Cathy at the annual Salute to Excellence.

Also, at the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association's Gold and Silver Plate Awards, the director of dining services at Villanova University, Timothy J. Dietzler, won the prestigious Gold Plate Award.

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].

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