The National Restaurant Association annual conference, known as the NRA Show, occurs in Chicago every May and brings together people from across the restaurant industry—from quick-serve restaurant CEOs and celebrity chefs, to marketing managers and operations directors. The show is a great time to see the latest products, attend educational sessions from leaders in the industry, and check out interactive demonstrations from the best chefs around. Christy Murray, distribution and logistics manager at Vitamix, attended this year's show and shared some key takeaways.

  1. Point-of-Sale and Electronic Inventory Management Systems

    Many of the vendors at this year's show were offering products that focused on lowering labor and inventory costs. "When looking at inventory in relation to rising labor, health care, and food costs, and the demand for a livable wage and overtime, businesses are really pressed to make the most of what they have," said Murray.

    Product Example: "We saw a smartphone app that allowed bartenders to measure how much liquor was left in a bottle, and send it to their inventory," Murray said. This innovation allows restaurants and bars to keep track of inventory in real time and adjust their orders accordingly.

  2. Flexibility and Mobility of Equipment

    Many of the products seen on the floor this year were able to accommodate various spaces—whether it's a tent by the river, an older building that can't accommodate certain equipment, or a catering space.

    Product Example: "We saw a lot of interesting things: an oven you could use 'off grid,' with no need to have it plugged in—whether it be in a tent situation or during home renovations," said Murray. "We also saw ventless hoods, waterless steamers, and ovens that can be programmed to cook and remember specific dishes."

  3. Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and Touch Screen

    All three of these features were key at this year's show, and some of them even won Kitchen Innovations Awards.

    Product Example: The A600 espresso machine by Franke won an award, and features touch screen, audio, and video to make beverages according to individuals' preferences. The Kitchen Brains® SCK® Food Safety Manager combines paperless checklists and wireless temperature monitoring. It also allows checklists to be viewed from anywhere on your own electronic device.

  4. Fast Food and the Way America Eats

    In an educational session, leaders from Panera Bread, Fazoli's, and Dig Inn discussed the different strategies they use to differentiate themselves on quality and service. Whether it be providing access to clean food or finding ways to accommodate the on-the-go diner, these restaurants are constantly evolving to meet the needs of the increasingly more selective guest.

    Main Takeaways: Branding is not what you say to people, but what people say about you. There are many ways people need to bring food to their families, and restaurants need to accommodate that. Everyone is trying to eat healthier, but people want to be rewarded for doing so.

Overall, the NRA Show is a great opportunity for anyone in the industry to be immersed in four solid days of exhibits, education, demonstrations, and networking. Not only does the show offer key restaurant trends, but it also presents the opportunity for like-minded individuals to collaborate and help the food industry progress forward.