From the Latest to the Greatest – Reflections on 40 years of the National Restaurant Show.
Dan O'Connell, CEO and Founder of FoodMix

In 1985, when I was an entry-level marketer, I walked into my first NRA (National Restaurant Association) show. It was the most fascinating event I had ever attended. I dove in deep, and almost forty years later (minus the two pandemic-paused years), I am still excited to get back into the pool. To me, it is like returning to college every year to reconnect with my foodservice community – but unlike campus, everyone is aging right along with me. 

As of this writing, I have actively participated in shows over a five-decade span. Looking back, the experiences and show highlights make up a modern history of foodservice, and perhaps hold lessons for the future. The 80’s were the boom years. The shift of consumer food spending from “at home” to “away from home” was beginning to happen. Retail was struggling and trying to sell private label in generic white packaging. At the same time, the foodservice industry was ushering in the Food Renaissance – America was quickly becoming a food culture. The NRA was a food show – and not a “just the basics” food show – showcasing anything and everything you could imagine, from all corners of the world. Beneath the lakefront building at McCormick Place was an entire gourmet floor – amazing specialty foods, wines, and spirits. The after-hours parties were epic celebrations, and Rush Street became an NRA block party virtually every night. 

As we entered the 90’s, distributors grew more powerful, and consolidation was rampant. The smaller brands and specialty foods that gave the show its soul began to get squeezed out of the market. These brands could not go directly to the operator, and they could not afford to pay to play with the distributors. The big food brands dominated the show, and equipment, supplies, and early technology began to displace food. The industry doubled in size, and consumer food spending away from home was nearing food spending at home. In response, the retail store perimeter began to try to compete for the growing appetite for convenience, variety, and taste. 

Then began the new millennium, industry growth slowed but was still robust. The horrors of 9/11 kept people at home, and the Great Recession dropped traffic and check averages. The distributors’ power and control over the independents grew. Big food brands began to disappear from the show. Consumers were embracing food away from home; experiences became the buzz. Focus turned to the entire dining experience, not just the food. We were no longer allowed to say, “fast food” – we changed to “QSR” (quick-service restaurant) to acknowledge consumer demand for speed and quality. The dot-com era changed kitchen operations, reservation systems, and purchasing, and we began to get flooded with data. The Food Renaissance kicked in big time: chefs became celebrities, and cooking shows became must-watch TV. As a nation, we started changing what we ate, just as in the 80’s and 90’s we changed where we ate or got our food. 

2010 and the ensuing decade established a milestone. In 2015 consumer spending for “food away from home” exceeded “food at home” and has never looked back, except during the pandemic years. The industry grew, in select pockets, but at a decent rate of 53 percent. The Restaurant Show entered its weakest and least inspiring era. Equipment, supplies, and technology dominated the show floor. The biggest food brands had all but retreated. It was impossible to get a free beer at the end of the day and connect with colleagues. People stopped coming and companies went from sending teams to work the show to sending a few employees to work the pre-show and post-show activities. 

As we entered this decade, show struggles continued and show ownership changed. Then the world changed, and everything stopped in one week. We stayed at home. If you could deliver food to homes, business boomed; if you could not, you were on the sidelines. Many, myself included, wondered if this was to be the end of the NRA. The show was canceled for two years. It resumed but limped along, at best. But then something happened: we all got tired of not interacting, not connecting, not discovering, not learning, and damn it, not partying. So, we started again in 2023. Food was the focus, celebrated at the show and in the evenings. Smaller brands and specialty foods now had access to operators – if not through the big broadline distributors, then through Amazon, specialty distributors, or cash and carry – so they came back. As the most sophisticated foodservice industry and supply chain in the world, the globe came back as well. To our delight, country-sponsored exhibits brought us other cultures. 

I believe the resurgence of the NRA show reflects our nation’s relationship with food. In a time of division, food unites. Restaurant experiences nourish our soul, and the creativity of chefs and brand marketers determine what we will eat next. Food is not sustenance; food is life and the gateway to the most endearing and enduring connections we will ever make. So yes, after almost forty years, I am excited to return—because of my love for discovery, connections, creativity, brands, food, and a good party with some of the most amazing people I have had the pleasure to meet and call my friends. 

As a food marketer in any channel, you owe it to yourself and your brand to visit the show. This year’s show inspirations will lead to newly beloved brands in foodservice and retail. Can you afford to miss out? 

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