Editor’s Note: Greenville Restaurateur, National Restaurant Association Board Member and VantagePoint Foodservice Advisory Board Member Carl Sobocinski shares his thoughts from this year’s NRA Show in this guest blog post.
Between my time walking the floor, speaking with vendors about their experiences and attending NRA Board meetings, I have several observations from this year’s Show.
Show Floor Insights
After a low point during the economic downturn, the show continues to grow — both in the number of attendees and in the ways the exhibition halls have evolved. The decision to group certain products, such as the technology pavilion or the green carpeted aisles for organic or natural products, helps attendees focus on a particular type of vendor. In the past, I can remember having to trek to find the booths I was interested in visiting, so I like having things clustered. These areas should be strongly considered by relevant vendors because if you’re not included, there’s a chance consumers could overlook you.
All industry shows provide an opportunity to showcase the latest a company has to offer, but I thought this year’s NRA show had a particularly strong focus on the future. Vendors were showing off products geared toward efficiency and technology, including apps or other smart phone integration. They all want to help operators become more efficient, save time and manage from afar —generally looking to make operators’ jobs easier. We continue to look for efficient products, but not at the expense of the quality of food or experience. There was also a lot of booth language and presentations around “beating the competition,” and although product comparison is important, I pay more attention to customer service.
Workforce development, availability and other labor issues were the frequently discussed industry topics this year. Five years ago our challenges were related to pricing, the economy and diners staying at home, but now it’s more about finding and maintaining a quality workforce. As a lobbying industry, NRA focuses on a number of labor issues related to the Affordable Care Act, National Labor Relations Board, minimum wage and paid sick leave and other topics like menu labeling. Tracking and reporting for these regulations can take up a significant amount of time and resources — with the burden often being on the restaurant owner. The NRA seeks to simplify the laws, help its members understand them and work to find exemptions.
When it comes to industry trends, being at the show confirmed our continued focus on health and wellness. That focus started a couple years ago with our restaurants’ kids’ meals and rewriting those menus with the NRA’s Kids LiveWell program in mind. For example, our chef at Passerelle uses a cauliflower puree instead of heavy cream for a lower calorie, healthier macaroni and cheese, but I guarantee not a single kid knows the difference. We will continue with that philosophy across our business. Sustainability initiatives also remain top of mind. Restaurants want to attract millennials, and millennial trend studies show that they care about the environment and seek places that use green products, recycle and source locally.
Overall, the NRA Show provides a great opportunity to conduct face-to-face research on topics that matter to your business and gain a sense of where the industry stands and where it is going. I’ve already marked the 2016 dates on my calendar!