Editor's note: This is the final story in an eight-part series leading up to the NRA Show.
 
CHICAGO — Navigating the 2,100-plus exhibits and thousands of products and services on the floor of the 2006 National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show can be a daunting task when looking for specific items. As you enter the show, May 20-23 at McCormick Place in Chicago, aromas of mouthwatering food, sounds of equipment demonstrations and an expansive panorama of colorful exhibits envelop you.
 
Here are a few things you should checkout:
 
Efficient equipment
 
Ovens and refrigerators use large amounts of increasingly expensive electricity and natural gas, so operators are seeking ways to reduce energy costs.
 
"There's a new sense of urgency by restaurant operators about energy costs," said NRA Show speaker Tom Sherman, national account executive with The E Group, an energy-management services company based in Akron, Ohio. Kitchen Innovations 2006 Award recipient Structural Concepts Corp. of Muskegon, Mich., offers an automatic condenser coil cleaner that brushes dust from refrigerator coil fins to reduce service and energy costs.
 
Customer, serve thyself
 
Now that consumers are accustomed to self-service grocery-store check-outs, restaurant franchises are beginning to install kiosks, tabletop ordering systems and other items that allow guests to easily customize their orders. Lombard, Ill.-based exhibitor Adusa Inc. reports interest from quickservice establishments, where customers are "looking to get their food as quickly as possible and go," said Adusa President Juan Perez.
 
With self-service devices, a restaurant's entire staff can fulfill orders while customers wait in line, said Tommy Woycik, president, Nextep, Troy, Mich. "By the time you pay, your sandwich is ready." MooBella Ice Cream System of Taunton, Mass., a 2006 Kitchen Innovations Award recipient, created a self-serve ice-cream dispenser that makes 96 varieties of ice cream in the space of a vending machine. Customers select ice cream type, flavors and mix-ins through a touchscreen on the machine. In 45 seconds, they get a custom-made scoop.
 
Slogging through FOG
 
Fat, oil and grease residue — often known as FOG — can be as mettlesome as cat hair on a black suit. And safe, economical and ecological oil disposal is challenging. So how can high fat- and oil-users master FOG use and disposal? Many choose water-heater-shaped tanks, foodservice consultants Jeffrey Berlind and Alan Plassche say.
 
One tank stores fresh oil; another fills up with used oil from the fryer. Trucks haul away the used oil and replace it with a fresh tank. Other solutions include Hoei America Inc.'s ionic oil purifier, which slows the oxidation process during frying and extends oil freshness; R.F. Hunter's battery-operated disposal/filtration caddy; and a device that safely shuttles hot oil from fryers to grease dumpsters by Worcester Industrial Products Corp.
 
Big output in small space
 
Skyrocketing real estate and construction costs have prompted restaurants to build smaller units. The advantage: Small units allow chains to grow in communities they traditionally might not have targeted, said Jim Sullivan, chief executive of consulting company Sullivision. With less square footage, the units need equipment that takes up less space. Manufacturers have responded with equipment in "smaller footprints." Lang Manufacturing of Everett, Wash., will showcase an all-in-one, half-size baking oven and holding cabinet. Exhibitor CAL-MIL will showcase its countertop flatware/condiment dispensers; Manitowoc will show its countertop ice-maker; Nieco Corp. will highlight a countertop broiler; and Vulcan/Wolf will display a high-volume steamer.
 
First podcast
 
Podcast Grill, a new podcast on iTunes.com and PodcastAlley.com, will produce 10 shows during the show, from show-floor booth No. 5575.
 
"Podcast Grill is aimed at helping restaurateurs and franchisees stay on top of what is going on in the industry," said Paul Barron, the host of Podcast Grill. "Whether you're a Subway or McDonald's operator, or you own a small pizzeria, fast casual restaurant, Starbucks-style coffee shop or high-end cafe, Podcast Grill will offer news and information that will help you be more successful."
 
On-the-spot training
 
You've heard of on-the-job training, but what about on-the-spot? Portable digital assistants, cell phones and Mp3 players allow restaurants to offer customized training at any moment, anywhere on the job. Angier, N.C.-based exhibitor Maj Media creates custom training programs that can be added to a restaurant's computer system or an iPod-like device.
 
"Sous Chef," a computer-learning system by Phoenix-based KP Education Systems, contains more than 250 videos (from basic knife skills to advanced garnishing) and thousands of illustrations.
 
Scheduling just a click away
 
Paper schedules might become a thing of the past. Many restaurants are beginning to use management software to match staffing with customer flow. Just ask Richard Hodges, senior training and development director for la Madeleine, which used to rely on nine scheduling models for its French bakeries and cafes. Now the Dallas-based chain uses just one model, thanks to a Web-based system produced by TimeManagement Corp., a Minneapolis-based exhibitor. Jeff Imm, TimeManagement's vice president of sales and marketing, said the product records data about a restaurant's customer traffic and suggests the number of employees needed at any time.
 
Packaging improvements
 
Colin Butts has a hard time convincing customers that his company's cold-drink cups, made from renewable corn resources, are cost comparable to petroleum-based plastic.
 
"Everyone thinks going green costs more," said Butts, marketing associate for Fabri-Kal, a Kalamazoo, Mich.-based exhibitor. But cups and containers made from renewable resources are making inroads with restaurant operators and customers as oil prices rise.
 
"You can grow corn," said Jennifer Severs, marketing associate for Sabert, a Sayreville, N.J., exhibitor. Sabert's new cold-food container line is made from a polymer derived from cornstarch.
 
"They're good for the environment and they're a good product," said Vince Auyeung, owner of Greensboro, N.C.-based Sino Wok International. Auyeung uses containers made from bamboo, sugar cane and other natural fibers at his Sino Wok and Sakura Xpress restaurants in North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Maryland.
 
No spills + no mess = returning customers
 
A sure way to anger a restaurant customer is send him or her home with a takeout container that spills all over the car. Customers generally expect microwaveable packages with no leakage, said John Burke, president of the Foodservice and Packaging Institute in Falls Church, Va.
 
Exhibitor Green-Line Products Inc. of Ontario, Canada, devised a solution for plastic lids that pop off beverages: shrink-wrap film seals lids to cups. Inside the restaurant, leak- and spill-free containers are equally important. GlobeTrends, an East Hanover, N.J., exhibitor, produced a drip-less, beehive-shaped honey bottle. When squeezed, a valve is released, and the honey squirts out the bottom. Stop squeezing, and the valve returns to place with no mess. "These [honey bottles] are very convenient and customers like them," said John Caraffa, owner of Countryside Markets, a New York-style deli in Swarthmore, Pa.
 
Safety supplies
 
Restaurants are running to shoe- and floor-makers to avoid costly slip-and-fall worker compensation claims. Crocs Footwear of Niwot, Colo., Red Wing Shoe Company of Red Wing, Minn., and Lehigh Safety Shoes of Nelsonville, Ohio, are among the Show exhibitors that offer slip-resistant footwear.
 
"Shoe suppliers are stocking more styles because workers are more fashion conscious," said Matt Smith, president and chief operating officer, Shoes For Crews of West Palm Beach, Fla.
 
The bottom line with footwear is comfort, said Anton Albrand, institutional business manager for Crocs. The company is introducing its shoes to the restaurant industry after rave reviews from health care workers and consumers. But some workers don't wear correct footwear, so safe flooring becomes more important than ever. Shoes For Crews offers the Mighty Mat, a floor mat that's slip-resistant on both sides. "Most floor mats slip and slide on greasy floors and can cause an accident even if employees wear proper shoes," Smith said.
 
Other flooring trends include antimicrobial mats that resist germs, treatments that create traction between shoes and floors and lighter floor mats that are easier to carry. "It's a pain to carry heavy mats outside for cleaning," Smith notes.
 
Oil solution
 
Nearly three of four adults say they try to eat healthfully in restaurants, according to a National Restaurant Association survey. In turn, more than half of all operators report greater customer demand for healthful options. Food manufacturers have responded with myriad products to help restaurant operators satisfy customer demand for healthful menu items. Among them are cooking oil producers, such as exhibitor Dow AgroSciences.
 
Dow will introduce trans-fat-free oil made from canola and sunflower varieties. Low in saturated fat, the oil boasts a long "fry life," said Dave Dzisiak, global business leader for oils, Dow AgroSciences. The company has the ability to produce more than a billion pounds a year for the foodservice industry, Dzisiak said. To help operators learn how to incorporate trans-fat-free oils into their menus, the Natural Food Service Brokerage, the nation's largest publicly traded natural foods distributor, will showcase foods made with trans-fat-free oils by Spectrum Naturals, a division of Hain Celestial. The natural foods distributor will be in the Show's Natural and Organic Food Pavilion.
 
 

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