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NRA Show

NRA 2013
Looking in at the 2013 NRA Show.

It’s May which means the National Restaurant Association Show is in Chicago!  This is the place where you can find anything and everything you need, or didn’t even know you needed, for your restaurant, corner shop, coffee house, or FOOD TRUCK.  We’ll be walking the aisles, attending educational sessions and watching the cooking demos.

Now, if you only have a food truck, you can skip all of the flatware and furniture sections, but there’s still a lot for you to take in.  In the past, we’ve found everything from promotional clothing, i.e. a hot dog costume for your wiener truck, stylish chef clothing to spices, sauces, meats, coffees, oils, appliances, equipment, technology services, alternative fuel offerings and so much more.

If you’ve lost your cooking inspiration, the many aisles will either remind you why you only offer scratch-made food on your truck or spark something new with the taste of an unexpected chutney or hot sauce.  We suggest keeping an open mind and palette when trying everything.  Even though the big players in the food service industry dominate the show floor, there are always those independently owned start-ups that are just trying to get their name and flavor out to the masses.

Along with the tastings, you can see the many chefs grace the World Culinary Stage throughout the show.  The line-up includes chefs from the various networks and television shows, such as, Rick Bayless, Graham Elliot, David Burke, Art Smith, Ming Tsai and Anne Burrell, along with many more demos and book signings.

In addition to everything happening on the show floor, there are dozens of educational sessions throughout the four days of the show.  The topics include operations, sustainability, marketing, technology and menu development including special diets, health and nutrition.  There will be a lot to report out after the show.  There is a food truck focused session and Chris Johnston of the famed Cheesies is on the panel.

There will be plenty of information (and food) to digest, people to meet and things to learn.  Even though the show doesn’t have a designated ‘Food Truck’ section, we’ve seen how other vendors are using food trucks in their displays to promote their products and services.  We’ll keep a close eye on news, tips, trends, products and services that are key in running your food truck operations and report out in the weeks and months to come.

If you are coming in to Chicago for the show…let us know so we can meet!!!

The 2012 National Restaurant Association Show came to a close about a week ago and I believe most attendees and exhibitors considered it a success.  As a fledgling writer, I felt very inspired by this year’s show; and a bit disappointed as a food truck advocate.


Last year’s NRA Show was a whole new experience.  Mobile Cuisine was still new and establishing its voice in the mobile food and food service industries.  Last year conversations began in aisles, booths, at the Starbucks near the concourse and have been held since.  Friendships were forged and potential partnerships are still being explored.  Last year it was new.  This year felt like we belonged…  At least, that’s how it felt on the surface.

As mobile food advocates, we found the absence of the official food truck area a bit disconcerting.  Stories were floating around as to why.  One version stated the food truck manufacturers didn’t want to be next to each other.  That could be true.  Another version was that the NRA, not wanting to have an official food truck space in the show, placed mobile food–focused vendors throughout the two halls.

Along with the scattered mobile food-focused vendors, the seminars that covered the topic went from nearly a dozen last year to less than 5 this year.  It gave the impression that the NRA doesn’t take this “trend” seriously.

One serious bit of information was circulating through the mobile food–focused vendors.  It was announced that 22% of the NRA’s fast-casual restaurant members are interested in starting food trucks.  This statistic was a bit mind numbing, but not surprising.  Consider the $100s of millions of dollars brought in by these large corporations and their interest in what some call a “passing trend.”  Soon, a Burger King truck could be parked next to the Grill ‘Em All truck.  The success of either truck STILL relies on consumer preference.

This statistic not only validates that food trucks aren’t a trend, but a viable source of income, brand extension and a business that should be supported in their respective communities, local governments and the National Restaurant Association.  After all, food trucks, whether they have a brick and mortar home base, are corporate supported or independently owned, are mobile restaurants and should be welcomed into the NRA family.

It seems strange that the NRA has distanced itself from the whole mobile food debate – locally and nationally.  For an organization that lobbies on behalf of and supports restaurants on every level, one has to ask, why wouldn’t the NRA want include these businesses in the conversation?

While walking the show floor, we ran into several of the local Chicago food truck owners and met others that are about to open their new trucks in unexpected places around the country.  These mobile restaurant owners are not renegade, fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants truck operators.  They are restaurant owners with many of the same concerns as their brick and mortar counterparts, along with a whole host of other concerns.  They’ve made the investment to attend the show and build relationships in the industry.  The industry needs to open their arms and welcome them to the food service family.


Trend gaining traction as cultural acceptance grows

CHICAGO, IL – A decade ago, food trucks were lowly purveyors of donuts and coffee, metallic wallpaper in the urban streetside fabric.

Two years ago, an enterprising chef combined Korean barbecue with Mexican tacos, drove around Los Angeles with Twitter on his smartphone and became a social media sensation.

Today, the food truck trend continues to grow. The National Restaurant Association says the category is projected to top $630 million in nationwide revenue in 2011, up 3.6 percent from 2010, which would outstrip the 2.5 percent growth estimate for the entire restaurant business.

More important, its cultural acceptance as an outlet for creative cooking is gaining traction.

Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research for the restaurant association, cites the entrepreneurial spirit of chefs and the still-sluggish economy, plus the relative low overhead costs compared with traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants, as reasons for mobile food trucks’ rise.

While it is true that Chicago, host of the annual restaurant show, continues to grapple with mobile foods legislation (cooking in a truck in Chicago is prohibited; serving prepared food isn’t), food trucks mania remained a hot topic at McCormick Place, where the show has been taking place since Saturday.

At a session Saturday called “The Road Ahead for Food Trucks,” Suzy Badaracco, of industry forecaster Culinary Tides, predicted brick-and-mortar restaurants, many of which have an adversarial and competitive relationship with food trucks, would begin launching vehicles of their own. Earlier this year, The Southern, a Bucktown restaurant serving food from its namesake region, unveiled a mac and cheese truck.

Phillip Foss, of the Meatyballs Mobile food truck, said it is possible to get into the business for under $100,000 in Chicago, because there’s no cooking in the truck. For a brick-and-mortar restaurant, it’s at least double, if not triple, the cost.

Find the entire article <here>


For the last four days, the restaurant industry has converged on Chicago for the 2011 NRA Show at McCormick Place. More than 1,800 companies representing all facets of the food industry have been exhibiting to over 40,000 attendees for this 4 day event.

As the editor-in-chief for Mobile Cuisine Magazine, this was my first show that I have attended. Knowing ahead of time that the “Food Truck Spot” would be the location of the show I would be spending a lot of time in, I knew that there would be many exhibitors with products that would tie directly into the mobile food industry. Knowing is one thing, but experiencing them all is completely different.

Leading up to the 9:30 am opening on Saturday there seemed to be a huge buzz about this year’s show. Perhaps it was optimism for an improving economy, a sense of industry unity as it confronts policy and legal challenges, or the way social networks allow for pre-conference interaction and excitement to build leading up to the show.

Much of the buzz tended to be generated by new exhibitors and products. This year a variety of new technologies and platforms to connect with customers and improve efficiencies were on display, along with a host of ways to cut costs and the use of natural resources to create a greener more sustainable industry.

Here were a few of the areas outside of the “Food Truck Spot” I was hunting in to find leads for articles to present our readers over the course of the upcoming year.

Bacon – Yes folks, it had its very own category with ten individual exhibitors. There are already food trucks with bacon themed menus such as Bacon Mania out of Orange County, CA, but after visiting booths with chains like Denny’s riding the bacon wave with its BAconalia celebration (including a Maple Bacon Sundae), and other creative chefs making bacon croutons, not only do I see this trend extending into more bacon themed trucks, but I may have to invest in pork belly futures at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

Flavor Trends – Beyond the bacon craze, a number of flavor trends were on display. Ethnic food representation continues to grow in the European, Asian and Hispanic categories and a rising number of products from South America and the Middle East were on display. Small plate items from appetizers to desserts were well represented, for research purposes only, I had to sample the red velvet cheesecake from Eli’s. They must read Nancy Kruse’s trend reports as closely as I do.

Green Initiatives – Earth-friendly cleaning options have been around for years, and equipment manufacturers continue to produce more efficient machines that use less energy and produce less waste. At this show I was looking for companies that are empowering chefs, and owner operators with greater information on the food they chose to buy, as well as a means to make their trucks more earth friendly.

Health/Nutrition – 52 exhibitors were at the show in this category, however this number may be a bit high, as 5-hour Energy was included. In addition to the usual suspects such as produce companies like Calavo, Chiquita and Gills Onions, a growing number of gluten-free manufacturers were exhibiting to provide operators with convenient options to satisfy restricted-diet diners.

Food Safety – The CDC’s alert system for identifying food borne illnesses is more sophisticated than ever and is able to gather information quickly from smaller sample sizes. For food truck owners who base menu items on fish, this may mean the potential for negative headlines if implicated. Most instances arise from improper handling, prep or storage at the commissary, so you were able to find everything from cold and hot storage equipment to rodent-repelling trash bags at the show. I’ll also was seeking out new technologies for managing and tracking inventory that can help mobile food vendors prevent and control threats to their operations.

Technology – Food truck owners had a lot to see this year. From POS systems that improve the speed and accuracy of orders to back-end data management systems that track customers’ habits and improve marketing efforts continue to be more robust and less costly. What I was looking forward to seeing were the opportunities for mobile marketing and connecting with customers on their smartphones. Application designers have great templates for mobile ordering that are affordable for even independent operators. QR codes continue to hover over the horizon, and 2011 may finally be the year it springs into mainstream use.

I look forward to being able to provide the readers of Mobile Cuisine Magazine with upcoming content based on all of the information I was able to gain from this year’s show. The new friends that I made, as well as all of the products I was able to learn about and sample will make up hundreds of new articles for MCM to provide its readers. If you were unable to make it to Chicago this year, be sure to book your reservations early and plan to make it here next year. Mobile Cuisine Magazine will not only be here as attendees, but we are already looking into the possibility of being an exhibitor as well.

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