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Restaurant Show
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The National Restaurant Association Show is May 18-21, 2024 in Chicago.

Topics of interest from the National Restaurant Association show floor

The four topics I’ll be zooming in on are labor solutions (cost, retention), operational efficiencies, marketing, and sustainability.

The National Restaurant Association Show kicks off this weekend at Chicago’s McCormick Place and, if you can believe it, it’s going to be even bigger than last year. In fact, it’s expected to parallel pre-pandemic numbers with over 55,000 attendees expected.

Indeed, we keep hearing over and over again how 2024 is the year for “normalization,” and that is true not just with show expectations but also in relation to some food costs coming back down to earth, staffing levels beefing up again, and bolstered marketing budgets. Still, plenty of challenges remain, such as the cost of debt, construction, and real estate. Labor costs are unprecedented (we see you, California), yet the industry has reached a pricing threshold, and consumers are weary. These are the types of things that hinder growth.

Fortunately, what this industry is really good at – besides food and hospitality, of course – is coming up with solutions and workarounds and innovations to push through any challenge and that is what we expect to see in earnest in Chicago from the over 2,000 companies exhibiting, over 900 product categories on display, and expanded educational sessions.

What I’m personally looking forward to diving more deeply into is anything related to labor; what solutions exist to help this industry with shortages, high retention levels, higher costs? Has labor technology evolved to provide relief for both operators and employees? What are some new benefits or training approaches companies are leveraging to promote restaurants as a career, not just a starter job?

Number two, are there solutions to help operators better protect their margins now that we’ve reached a pricing threshold? What new news is there on the equipment side? What about inventory management? Kitchen display systems? Are there tech-enabled pricing solutions (I bet there are tech-enabled pricing solutions).

Number three, what is the state of marketing as the industry continues to struggle with sluggish traffic? Are we putting more eggs into the digital marketing basket? How do we approach loyalty as consumers expect more personalized deals and messaging? How do we approach loyalty in general as it becomes table stakes?

And, number four, what will this gigantic show floor put forward as sustainability solutions? Every year there is something that surprises me within the scope of sustainability, from plant-based products to packaging, and the industry as a whole is getting more sophisticated and more urgent in its need to find effective innovations here.

During a recent interview, Heather Beaubien, Chick-fil-A’s director of sustainability, noted that the industry has also become more collaborative in this space, sharing best practices, joining recycling and food waste reduction partnerships, testing innovations, and so forth. We expect to see many of these innovations at McCormick Place and will report back accordingly.

Finally, if you’re at the show May 18-May 21, do stop by the Nation’s Restaurant News booth (No. 6001 in the North Hall) and say hi! We look forward to seeing you.

Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]

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