The growth in retail foodservice will be a major theme at the National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant Hotel-Motel Show 2018, set for May 19-22 at Chicago’s McCormick Place.

The Washington, D.C.-based association expects about 66,000 foodservice professionals from around the world at this year’s show, about the same as last year. More than 2,300 exhibitors representing 900-plus product categories are expected to share their latest products and business solutions.

For this year’s show, the association decided not to carve out a separate space for retail foodservice, as it has in the past with its Foodservice@Retail Summit. Mary Pat Heftman, NRA’s executive vice president for Convention & Strategic Alliances, says that decision springs from a desire among retail foodservice professionals to mingle more with their colleagues in other corners of the foo dservice world.

“By the end of last year’s show, what we had heard from the Foodservice@Retail professionals is that they’re looking for the same things that restaurant operators are looking for, and they want to interact with and learn from restaurant operators directly,” Heftman says. “So this year, we’re really excited to transition Foodservice@Retail to the show floor to make it a more accessible and dynamic experience.”

NRA expects there to be more retail foodservice specialists than ever before on the exhibit floor at this year’s show, Heftman says. The association has scheduled four or five educational sessions focused on retail foodservice specifically, as well as 70 other educational sessions that will be relevant to the foodservice retail professionals and their operations.  

“Beyond scheduled programming, we’ll also be facilitating meet-ups of like-minded individuals, steering focused learning in small groups, and creating opportunities for retail foodservice professionals – and all operators and attendees – to ask the questions that are most important to them, share their opinions, knowledge and resources, and shape the larger discussions at the show,” she says.

NRA ’18 has a lot more to offer retail foodservice purveyors and other attendees this year, Heftman says. Among the new things for this year’s edition is the Restaurant Revenue Growth Conference, which will provide attendees with the tools and resources to grow their businesses.

The conference, set to run May 20-21, will feature a mix of speakers, hands-on participation and group learning opportunities, fostering collaborative problem-solving for attendees to work together, learn new skills and generate growth plans for their own companies. Discussions and activities will focus on three areas: Engaging New Guests, Increasing Spend and Driving Frequency. An “immersion learning” approach will include facilitated brainstorming, deep dives, demos and on-floor tours.  

Billy Beane

Conference speakers include Billy Beane, executive vice president of baseball operations for the Oakland A’s, whose unique approach to the game was chronicled in the book (and later movie) “Moneyball”; and Jon Taffer, an award-winning restaurant business entrepreneur and concept developer. 

“We have a lot of impressive industry experts and innovative strategists presenting at the conference, and dynamic, immersive and collaborative programming that will kickstart industry leaders’ creative strategic thinking and give them actionable steps to immediately increase revenue,” Heftman says.  

In another highlighted event of NRA ’18, Dawn Sweeney, NRA’s president and CEO, will host leading business figures in a discussion of the future of foodservice and best practices for adjusting to an ever-changing business climate. 

Trends will continue to be front and center at this year’s show, Heftman says. Take, for instance, the association’s annual “What’s Hot” list. “It’s a really interesting deep dive into what culinary professionals are predicting for 2018,” she says. “In terms of foodservice trends, we’re seeing the continued rise of hyper-local concepts, chef-driven fast casual concepts, natural ingredients and clean menus, food waste reduction (and what chefs and companies are doing to reuse food scraps), veggie-centric and vegetable-forward cuisine, locally sourced produce, meats, and seafoods, and farm-branded items.”

This year’s show will also feature more than 50 education sessions, ranging from workforce development and business operations to food, nutrition and beverage/alcohol. All sessions for this year’s show have been capped at 30 minutes, allowing attendees to get back on the show floor as quickly as possible.

For the  2018 show, NRA has refined its Foodamental Studio feature. In addition to two days of hands-on workshops, this year’s version of Foodamental will feature a day of culinary education and a day-long tasting open house for all of the show’s Food and Beverage Award (FABI) winners. The innovative food and beverage products made by FABI winners are making a substantial impact in the restaurant industry, Heftman says. Vegetarian and vegan meat substitutes and global cuisine inspired sauces and condiments are among them. The 36 products on display at NRA ‘18 range from a beet salsa to a gluten free cauliflower pizza crust to a blended Indian chai and rum cream liqueur, she says. Each of the award recipients and their products will be showcased in booths throughout the exhibit halls, and attendees will be able to sample the products at tasting events on May 21. 

Located throughout the show floor, specialty areas and pavilions will provide curated access to products and companies representing some of the top industry trends. The American Food Fair, for instance, will highlight U.S. food producers and processors with an eye towards exporting their products. And at BAR at NRA, restaurateurs will learn how to create bar menus for their restaurants. 

The Bellavita Italian Pavilion, meanwhile, will contain roughly 20,000 square feet of exhibit space devoted to Italian food and beverage producers, wine-focused educational sessions and demonstrations by renowned chefs.

On the equipment side, NRA will highlight the recipients of its prestigious Kitchen Innovation Awards, which honor companies that increase efficiencies and productivity for back-of-the-house operations and reflect the trends and topics most important to foodservice operators today, Heftman says. 

Each recipient and their product, including tools that address labor concerns, energy and water efficiency, food safety, sanitation, cross-functionality and space-saving, will be showcased in the interactive Kitchen Innovations Showroom on the exhibit floor.