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.