The National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show (or as convention-goers say, "No, not that NRA ...") is the yearly confab of food and hospitality professionals at McCormick Place that began Saturday and ends Tuesday. As national conventions go, this one is unimaginably vast and gobsmackingly specific.
Looking for a sneeze guard for your restaurant? There are nine companies here to field your sneeze guard queries. Thirty-three booths wanting your iced tea business. Two companies with competing pancake batter dispensers. The latest in color-changing straw innovations. The Bulgarian Ministry of Agriculture & Food will bend your ear about shopska salad. Outdoor-patio water misters, trailer-mounted barbecue smokers, anti-microbial ice makers, oil-filtration systems, nonskid footwear, menu covers, retractable awnings and the latest in glass and dish design — all this, and much more, can be found at the NRA show.
An industry this large justifies a gathering of this magnitude, held at a space the size of more than 20 football fields. Consider its scope: Projected restaurant sales for 2013 nationwide are $660.5 billion. Figures for this year's convention, its 94th, won't be released until after the show closes, but officials said they expect attendance to outpace last year's 61,000 attendees from more than 100 countries. More than 2,000 companies are on exhibit, up from last year's 1,900-plus. (So many out-of-town visitors come for the restaurant show, many restaurants traditionally closed on Sunday and Monday — like Rick Bayless' three in River North — make an exception this one week of the year.)
In exploring McCormick Place, the convention hall norms of seizing a passerby's attention are put to practice. The most effective way to make people stop is also the restaurant show's greatest advantage: Free food and beverage samples, endless and stupefying.
No expenses were spared here. Entire legs of Spanish jamon iberico de bellota, the most prized ham in the world, were carved for sampling, one $3 retail slice at a time. All that Fermin USA & Wagshal's Importers ask is for you to listen to their pitch — how these free-roaming pigs feast on an exclusive diet of acorns six months before slaughter, so on, so forth — and the ham keeps coming. Same with ribeye cubes of Australian Wagyu beef, like biting down into butter, that visitors pierced three to a frilly toothpick. There was frozen hot chocolate by Ghirardelli, London broil and horseradish-cheddar sandwiches from Dietz & Watson, grilled lamb rib chops from Thomas Farms lamb, prosciutto and other charcuterie from Creminelli Fine Meats and fig-walnut frozen yogurt from Chobani.
The clear winner in the free hot-dog battle was Vienna Beef. While Eisenberg, Red Hot Chicago and Nathan's Famous passed out half-size hot dogs (and attendees were happy to get them), Vienna Beef upped the ante, giving away full-size Chicago-style dogs with all the toppings. Better still, a Vienna rep was positioned halfway up the long line, offering free sausage slices to those patiently waiting. Smart.
Not so smart? A pizza-oven maker who shall remain nameless plastered its booth with at least three signs proclaiming, "We do NOT serve food and beverages." Most exhibitors, in fact, don't give out food, but posting signs to that effect gave the booth a less-than-friendly feel. There were more people at the fly-eradication exhibit.
Free food is the surefire way of stopping convention-goers at your booth, but any giveaway will do. Spinning prize wheels, offering something as mundane as magnets, are guaranteed to form lines. Lines, they'll tell you, are buzzy. At Honey Smoked Fish Co.'s booth, a buxom woman and muscle-bound beefcake type (sleeves cut off) offered free T-shirts bearing the company logo, yours to keep as long as the models could turn you into a walking billboard. Go Daddy, on the other hand, happily passed out its logo T-shirts — no modeling required.
Other swag: Wind-up chattering teeth from Grecian Delights. Battery-operated flameless candles from The Original Flameless Candles. Beer cozies, lighted bottle openers, lanyards and thumb drives. Best in show: Progressive Insurance (which apparently insures a lot of delivery trucks), which offered visitors pens, lip balm, heavy-duty work gloves and Flo bobblehead dolls. Score!
Even if it's just about tasting the latest foods, it's impossible to wrap one's arms around this entire convention. There are 80 educational sessions, covering topics from menu design to social media, as well as cooking demonstrations, and speeches from Anthony Bourdain to Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz. And there were plenty of chef demonstrations and cookbook signings; at one point Sunday the line for a book signing (and photo op) for chef Aaron Sanchez (of the Food Network shows "Chopped" and "Heat Seekers") was 77 hopefuls long.
To comprehend it all, it's more effective to walk laps around the hall and spot patterns, the unique and the new, and what companies — as soon as spotting your press badge — hope to convince reporters will become the dining world's next big thing.
• There was much activity at the booth touting the Viba Body Slimmer, which purports to whip people in shape via a vibrating platform that works glutes in the manner of an introductory twerking class.
• Betson, a company that sells arcade games, unveiled Beer Pong Master, a "minus the mess" re-creation of the classic collegiate drinking game. "It's just shipping now," said the proud rep.
An entire pavilion was devoted to umami this year, that mysterious "fifth taste" discovered by Japanese scientists a century ago. In short, umami is the savory, meaty, full-bodied sensation on the palate found in foods rich in glutamates, such as mushrooms and aged cheeses. The umami booths, mostly from Japanese food companies, aimed to demystify this taste sensation, one which seems to be at an all-time high in comprehension in America. "More and more chefs cooking non-Asian foods are incorporating umami in their foods," said Joe Leslie, whose Kikkoman company produces soy sauce. One display offered taste tests of two french fries — one seasoned with salt, the other with Ajinomoto, the MSG seasoning. Nearby, a man played the role of umami carnival barker, passing around bags of bonito flakes — shaved dried tuna — touting its role in amplifying flavors in Japanese broth.
• The National Restaurant Association, in its 2013 industry forecast, cites these as the top trends this year: gluten-free menu items, meats and charcuterie cured in-house, nonwheat noodles and pastas such as quinoa and buckwheat, house-made sodas and drinks barrel-aged onsite.
• In Illinois, an estimated 517,900 people are employed in the restaurant industry. Sales statewide in 2013 are expected to hit $21.7 billion, a 3.8 percent increase from 2012.
• Coming soon to a retailer near you: iFork is a line of stainless steel and plastic utensils with a built-in tab on its underside (think flatware with heels). This elevates the fork/spoon/knife — the part that touches your mouth — above the surface of the germy table.
We spotted Bang, a caffeinated ice cream from a company in Madison, Wis. One scoop of this ice cream contains the same amount of caffeine as a bottle of energy drink. Sarah Moore, a managing partner of Bang, explained her targeted demographic is college students, who might consider ice cream over coffee to power through a study session. "There's caffeinated beef jerky," Moore said, "why not caffeinated ice cream?"
There's Acid Zap, aimed at those suffering from acid reflux. It comes in a Visine-like bottle, containing a liquid that the inventors claim can balance the pH levels in acidic foods like marinara sauce or orange juice, without changing flavor.
BY THE NUMBERS
Number of specialty exhibitors at the National Restaurant Association show:
9 Slush machines
5 Nachos and equipment
4 Ashtray and ashtray stand
10 Smoked fish
10 Heat lamps
11 Hot dog grills/cookers
4 Napkin rings
9 Sneeze guards
2 Pancake dispensers
5 Scouring pads
9 Changeable letter signs
33 Iced teas
8 Pie filling
7 Pepper mills
2 Tandoori ovens