National Restaurant Association Show practical advice and industry trends

Restaurant Show
Nearly 60,000 people attended this year’s show. [National Restaurant Association]

I recently attended the annual National Restaurant Association Show at McCormick Place in Chicago, the biggest convention center in the U.S. with three buildings located right near Lake Michigan. This is the biggest industry gathering of the year. The show floor was massive, as large as 12 football fields, with over 2,000 exhibitors in categories like Equipment, Services, and Technology & Entertainment. If you’re a restaurateur and want to see everything available to you in one event, whether it’s technology or equipment or services or food, this is the show to go to for sure. FIXE joined Ottimate’s booth on Sunday, May 19. Two FIXE execs and I also scoured the floor for restaurant innovations and made important connections on Saturday and Monday. 

The show’s scale and scope can be overwhelming. It’s a big area with eight different pavilions, multiple stages and theaters, and a lot of friends and people you know from LinkedIn. Endless opportunities to network or find products, technologies, foods, softwares and services to boost your business. Now that I’ve got a better handle on the National Restaurant Association Show, I’m happy to share highlights and offer advice on how to get the most out of your experience at future shows.


  1. Definitely download “The Show To Go” app and try to map out the booths you want to go to, because it’s a good resource. The app also provides exhibitor and programming info.
  2. I would put more resources into staying Sunday and Monday nights. More big players and industry influencers are there on Monday. I talked to a couple execs who had salespeople there. They said, “Monday is the day to make money.” Saturdays and Sundays, you’ll probably get people who are just going there because it’s their weekend. A lot of bigger executives don’t want to take their weekends off to go to the conference. They’d rather go on a work day, which is Monday. 
  3. Don’t be afraid to walk. If it’s your first time going, you almost need to spend a whole day just browsing around, and then identify booths that you want to come back to. The next day, come back to the booths where you want to spend a little bit more time.
  4. There are so many people there, and when the show ends at the end of the day at 5 o’clock, everyone’s trying to get an Uber at the same time. I waited over an hour for an Uber… It’s better to get to the show early and leave early. Otherwise you’re going to be stuck in traffic. If you don’t want to walk – and it’s a pretty long walk back into downtown Chicago – the shuttles work pretty well.


On the equipment side, you are seeing a lot more robotic options. I saw a robotic bartender. I saw a robotic wok. A robotic oven that can cook hundreds of different dishes. Then of course – I don’t know if you’ve seen them yet – but robotic servers or busboys. Do I think any of them are the right solution yet? No, but someone will eventually figure out that formula and hit a home run. 

Last year, there were so many more vegan, alternative meat options. When you went to the food tasting pavilion, there were so many: Impossible Burger, fake fish, fake eggs, fake this and fake that. This year, a lot of that wasn’t even there. Clearly people are moving away from alternative meats. Although I did try something that I thought was delicious, which I would buy. Mush Foods 50Cut hamburger was 50% meat and 50% mushrooms, and it was all ground together. So it looked like a burger, but it was not quite as unhealthy as a regular burger.


Everyone says they’re using AI now because it’s a catchy term, but Artificial Intelligence is used so generically. I haven’t seen anybody capitalize on it or use it as a specific solution quite yet.

I don’t think AI is a selling point in the restaurant tech space yet. I could see where there are going to be some applications for it down the road, especially in the bookkeeping side of things. I am open to start using AI and help with the bookkeeping, but we’re not there yet.