The National Restaurant Show confronts a changing industry

Photo by Jonathan Maze

The National Restaurant Show kicked off on Saturday, for the first time since 2019. The estimated 50,000 exhibitors and attendees expected for the four-day event will encounter a show that looks very much like it did back then. There are rows of the latest equipment and food items and stalwarts like Ecolab and Pepsi and CocaCola and Sterno, not to mention the hot dog vendors that draw long lines of hungry attendees.

Throughout the event, attendees can see the latest trends, where they get first-hand insight into how the industry is changing. Yet this year, perhaps like no other, they will see a very different business from the last time the event took place.

The pandemic that caused the show to be canceled in 2020 and 2021 has devastated much of the industry. The company is functionally smaller than three years ago. But it is also very different. Operators struggle with soaring food and labor costs and cannot always get the people or supplies they need. Customers have changed, much more interested in technology and takeaways than before.

All of this has created a spectacle that largely caters to a business that is less about serving the customer inside the restaurant and more about serving them as efficiently as possible from one of many different formats. It may be inside the restaurant. But it’s much more often outside, perhaps through drive-thru or mobile ordering or delivery.

Technology, indeed, has become a table stake, which has not always been the case. During an interview at the show, Restaurant Brands CEO Jose Cil told me that the industry has been slow to adopt the technology largely because there is relatively little need for it. That changed after the pandemic, which forced businesses to place more online orders and deliveries for fear of not making any sales. And then, when labor shortages hit and costs rose, more operators began to see the potential for return on investment.

Nowhere has this been seen more than with robots.

Robots have long been a feature of the show, though more often as a curiosity, similar to a concept car display at an auto show. They have attracted onlookers and news reports and are rarely found in a real restaurant, even though other industries have been using them for years. Restaurants simply had no reason to add them.

This year, robots were everywhere. And this year, companies selling robots have a chance of making an actual sale. Companies such as Chili’s are actively experimenting with server robots in 50 locations. “Our robot, Rita, has been promoted to food runner,” Chile’s future CEO Wyman Roberts told investors earlier this month, according to a transcript on financial services site Sentieo. “She does a fantastic job and our guests love her.”


The Lucki restaurant service robot./Photo by Jonathan Maze.

Similar robots have already been put to work in some independent restaurants that realize they could remove some of the work normally done by people, reducing their staffing needs.

Robots were just one of the more obvious industry developments on display. Yet industry changes also manifested themselves throughout the show and in more subtle methods, such as the connectivity of everyday equipment such as fryers or even beverage dispensers. Targeting back office users such as drive-thru, CocaCola’s new Freestyle 8100 connects directly to the POS system and can automatically queue orders as they come in .

The demand for efficiency was evident even in devices targeting more traditional customers. Take, for example, the SmartBrew, an automated brewing system that can turn any bar into a brewery, takes up just 150 square feet of space and only needs four hours a week to brew a batch. Our reporter verified that the device does indeed deliver a consistent product.


The SmartBrew brewing system./Photo by Peter Romeo.

The industry changed could also be found in even more subtle ways, such as the packaging that was on display. On-the-go packaging quietly had a major presence at the show – it has seen huge amounts of innovation in recent years as this business has exploded. And more of these products are durable or even reusable, like the cups and containers offered by a company called Sili Pint, which makes its wares from silicone. These containers could get to college campuses as soon as possible.

NRA Show Mugs

Silicone Cups by Sili Pint./Photo by Patricia Cobe.

There are many more innovations on display at the show that demonstrate the evolution of the industry. And it remains to be seen how many of them will become commonplace in restaurants across the country. But it’s clear the company is in a different era than it was in 2019.

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