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Walking the Floor: 3 Observations from the National Restaurant Association 2019 Show

May 30, 2019
By Mike Sacks

At any industry trade show, there is usually a focus on the future. What’s next, what’s coming, what consumers will want on the horizon. And the show floor is a great place to see that; as the wise person once said, the future is here, it’s just not yet evenly distributed. So, it was at the National Restaurant Association 2019 show in Chicago, drawing tens of thousands of visitors and exhibitors from all over the world to see the latest and greatest in the restaurant business.

There was a lot to see and taste, but I offer three things worth noting from my walk around the show floor while supporting a client:

1. Plant Protein is here. Flexitarians, vegetarians and those just wanting to eat less meat when dining out…rejoice. Protein alternatives were big and bold this year, and plant-based proteins were some of the unexpected showstoppers. I couldn’t get a slider at the Impossible Foods booth amidst the hungry and curious hoard.

2. Restaurant Tech (might) be here. We’re all increasingly familiar with Uber Eats (their booth was jumpin’) and Resy and other customer-facing technologies meant to enhance the restaurant experience. But running a restaurant – the operations diners don’t see – is really hard, and while technology solutions abound, adoption hasn’t caught up. That might be changing. A lot of exhibitors showing off the latest tools and services emphasized ease of implementation and have more of a consumer technology feel that operators may already be comfortable with. It’s progressed from clunky b2b software to more sophisticated, easy offerings that save operators money and time. Adoption trends over the next 12-18 months will be telling.

3. Experience is (still) here. Perhaps the unofficial theme of the conference, the diner experience was everywhere you looked. Cutlery or front of house staff uniforms? Pitched as important to diner experience. More global ingredients to incorporate in familiar ways? The experience diners want. Sustainable to-go boxes and silverware? Part of the experience. And it’s no wonder. In a hyper-competitive business where people’s stomachs are only so big, differentiating on experience is the real battleground.

A bonus observation: People will be eating french fries forever, no matter what else comes along. And who could blame us?

The communications lesson? Oh, I dunno. It may be as simple as giving decision makers and buyers the right balance of practical and ambitious. The right balance of now and next. Making it about them, not you. Or better yet, make it about their end customer. That’s how you sell out of sliders.