My first NRA was in 1985. It was a serious food show – from french fries to foie gras (yes foie gras was later outlawed in Chicago). Over the decades the show was less and less about food. Big food brands pulled out, and equipment, supplies, furniture, fixtures and P.O.S. systems became the focus. As we neared the pandemic, the show’s intrigue and attendance waned. Then it all went away, and there was a void. The industry lost its largest event, and meaningful connections stopped being made. As expected, the show sputtered post-pandemic. Until this year – this year was different.
It’s back to normal – not almost back; it’s back and better. While the culinary arts and delicious food could be featured and celebrated more prominently, 2023 NRA was a bigger and better food show than it has been for decades. People were back, maskless, sampling, networking and enjoying the beautiful spring weather in one of the greatest food cities in the world.
The next generation of hopeful plant-based processed foods were front and center. Few seemed to want you to taste items “naked” and often diverted taste buds with heavy seasoning, saucing and even smoking. Texture is harder to mask, and a few, particularly in the dairy and chicken substitute space, delivered. The early pioneers of plant-based protein were present, but the excitement seemed to be more on shrimp, chicken, sauces, cheese and specialty products. It will be interesting to see which brands drive processed plant-based next gen. Interestingly, lightly processed fruits and vegetables, as well as branded produce, were underrepresented. We would expect to see this change in the future.
Beyond processed and plant-based, there was a lot to see and taste. While items that saved labor and cut prep steps were most front and center, there were also a good number of premium products, such as higher-end seafood, meat and dairy brands, all sampling their finest tastes. Finally, the world was on exhibit via a wide array of global flavors and brands. Turkey, Japan, Spain, Italy and several other countries sponsored pavilions to feature their foods and culture.
It’s hard to make and serve great food without the right tools of the trade. Equipment was well represented, and advances in efficiency and productivity were recurring themes. Robotics and AI were seen in everything from making french fries, to ordering, and being served, a cocktail from a virtual bartender.
Appropriately, the event catered to the economic and post-pandemic realities many restaurants are still dealing with, but overall the vibe was optimistic and celebratory. We anticipate more food and more focus on the culinary arts as the show continues to evolve. On the eve of the show, Winsight Media announced a sale of its publishing, insight, event businesses and the NRA Show to Informa, a leading international events, digital services and academic knowledge group based in London. It will be interesting to see where they take the event, but our advice is to build an engaging celebration of delicious food and hospitality, and they will come!