• Innovation and trepidation at the 2005 National Restaurant Association show

If you've never been to the National Restaurant Association's annual tradeshow, you owe it to yourself to make the pilgrimage to the largest single gathering of restaurant pros in the world. Not only does the show draw 70,000 attendees — about 12 times the size of the pizza industry's largest expo — it features 2,100 exhibitors, whose wares are displayed across 1 million square feet of floor space in Chicago's McCormick Place.

As the

Steve Coomes, Senior Editor

foodservice industry's premier event, manufacturers typically roll out their latest and greatest products at the show, and this year was no exception.

Of particular interest to pizza operators was Hobart Corporation's new mixer, dubbed The Legacy. The name clearly is a nod to the company's history-making mixers — many of which outlive their owners — though there's little "historical" about its latest model. Sure, the 60-quart behemoth I got a look at still mixes dough with planetary movement, but that's about where the similarities between The Legacy and older Hobarts end. So different is the new mixer that it received a Kitchen Innovations Award from the NRA, which is high praise given some of the other high-tech winners.

Here's a short list of the improvements, along with descriptions about them, from Doug Lins, food machines sales development manager for Troy, Ohio-based Hobart:

* A swing-out bowl with a power lift. "This is all about saving the back. It's a lot easier to get the product in and out because you're standing directly above the bowl."

* Single-point bowl installation. "You only have to fumble with this one point and not three points. It's much easier to get the bowl lined up the first time."

* Quick-release agitators. "We no longer have the bayonet-style. Our quick-release hook goes straight up the shaft. And when you're done, you pull this (release) and it comes right off. You're not pulling

The instrument panel of Hobart's new mixer, The Legacy. Long-time Hobart users will notice the lack of a gear shift and a clutch.

and pushing anymore."

* A fully programmable timer. "The automatic time recall ... will remember the last time set, and each of the speeds, for the last time the mixer was used. So if you're doing the same recipes over and over again, like pizza operators do, you don't need to reset the times.

"It also has an optional programmable recipe timer. So you can put in nine different, six-step recipes, and it will change the (mixing) speeds and times automatically."

* A shift-on-the-fly — yes, that means no clutch and no gears — speed changer. "This will go between all the speeds without stopping. In the previous generation we had a mechanical gear configuration, but what we have now is a variable-speed motor that incorporates the speed change."

To keep a long-time Hobart user from having to change his recipes if he upgraded to the new model, the company ensured that "speeds 1 through 4 are consistent with the older models. We couldn't change the RPM because then we've changed everyone's recipes. ... We did add a stir

An agitator quick-release mechanism replaces the old bayonete release.

speed, though, so when you start a batch, it doesn't splash out everywhere."

As you might expect, the tab for The Legacy is up there: about $13,000. Lins knows that isn't cheap, but to maintain its market position as a leader, the company chose to make the machine a cutting-edge offering. Entering a price war with offshore providers, Lins added, was not an option because it would be forced to cheapen its product.

"We decided to go to the next level by adding features and value that will keep us up to the premium level instead of trying to play the price game with the competition."

The future of the NRA show

Another reason you should visit the NRA show soon is to ensure you'll enjoy it in Chicago. Having attended the NRA show since 1992, the Windy City has cemented itself in my mind and heart as the nation's finest overall restaurant and hotel town. To tour the show by day and then prowl the endless food scene at night is a foodie's dream come true.

But the recurrence of the show in Chicago is threatened by the venue that hosts it and the people who assemble it: McCormick Place and its unionized workforce. In a nutshell, exhibitors say it's become cost-prohibitive to come there, and compared to Las Vegas and Orlando — solid convention towns, in my opinion, but not nearly like Chicago — they're right.

Is it the age-old issue of the greedy going too far? Some say it is, others say it's not. I have yet to make up my mind on the matter. What's clear, however, is the cost. And to get an idea of the fare for exhibiting, I asked one pizza industry equipment provider what his company paid for its medium-large and fairly conservative booth set-up. The answer: $500,000.

That was to haul the equipment from a factory in the Chicago area to McCormick place in downtown Chicago, set up the booth and house, water and feed the attending staff. Drayage, which is the fee paid to have one's equipment merely hauled from the loading dock to the show floor, cost that exhibitor $100,000. No, that's not a misprint.

The exhibitor said his overall costs would be cheaper in Vegas or Orlando -- despite the increased freight costs to either far-flung point.

Even to a city the size of Chicago, the potential loss of the NRA show — the city's single-largest tradeshow — would be enormous. Sources estimate between $70 million and $90 million are pumped into the local economy during the four-day event.

Its central location makes it an easy trip for the majority of its attendees, and with all respect to Orlando and Las Vegas, Chicago, as a both a business and tourist destination, is terribly hard to beat.

Several folks I talked to insist that Mayor Richard Daley won't let the show leave town, and I hope they're right. But while the debate continues, I strongly encourage every pizza operator to visit the nation's oldest and finest restaurant show when it recurs next May. It's an eye-opening, mind-broadening experience that is not only fun, but will benefit your business in the long run.

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