Steady optimism rises from the NRA Show floor

May 21, 2014 | by Alicia Kelso

The National Restaurant Association’s annual show in Chicago came to a close Tuesday, with what seemed to be more attendees packing educational sessions and checking out the three full exhibitor floors. The trajectory of attendees has remained on a steady upswing since the peak of the recession, in 2008 and 2009.

According to most exhibitors we talked to, those attendees are finally ready to buy after years of stingy spending.

“Ground zero was about four or five years ago. Last year is when we could finally justify extending our booth. This year, it’s double the size,” said Dave Brewer, COO of Cooking Solutions at Middleby Corp. “We’re getting more traffic and definitely more quality leads.”

Peter Kelly, from Market Forge, which was acquired by Middleby in January, had the same impression from the show.

“It has exceeded expectations by a stretch. People are looking to buy. Last year they were cautiously optimistic for the first time in a long time. They were in their planning phases. This year, they’re close to pulling the trigger and buying,” he said. “Budgets are better now, and people are looking at value-adds instead of just the equipment.”

Scott Deshetler, from Ice-O-Matic, echoed the sentiment, stating that the traffic was better and the attitude more optimistic.

“A lot more people are asking us to help them with their expansion plans than they have in recent years,” he said.

Attendees weren’t just interested in equipment investments. Mobile and loyalty and digital signage purveyors also seemed to be having a heyday.  

Scott Nowokunski from Beanstalk Data said the large number of technology exhibitors can be overwhelming for restaurant operators who know food and service. But the show provides those operators with an opportunity to have all of those technology providers in one place so they can “cut through the chaos” and learn more than they would have time for otherwise, he said.

Digital signage — especially through menu boards — has been a conversation for the past five or so years at the NRA Show. This year, however, it’s being added to more game plans, exhibitors said.

“In about three years, maybe less, indoor digital menu boards will be the standard. So, people — customers — are starting to expect it. The cost has come down, and capital has opened up, and we’ve seen much greater interest, both for our indoor menu boards and drive-thru menu boards, than we ever have,“ The Howard Company’s Rod Clouser said.

Such “quality leads” emerged from the show as a central theme. Whereas many exhibitors weren’t sure if traffic was higher this year than last year, most agreed the traffic was better.

Samsung Product Manager Michael O’Halloran said the traffic for his company’s digital signage solutions has been more qualified and focused than last year, and has included both large and small companies.

MenuTrinfo’s Betsy Craig agreed: “The show has been amazing because there have been more quality leads and people wanting deeper conversations. People are seeking us out this year. Last year they were still kicking the tires,” she said.

Brand representatives have also received some positive leads. MOOYAH’s Ardag Tachian said the show traffic has met expectations and the quality of that traffic has been “very high.”

“People are less risk averse now, but it’s market specific. There are some areas that are still very much in recovery,” he said.

John Fawkes from the International Franchise Association was attending his seventh show. He agreed that traffic was better than it has been in the past couple of years, especially compared to 2009-2012, which he called “pretty rough.”

“The overall mood is up, and capital is opening more. Last year it started to trickle, and now it’s a bit steadier,” he said. “One of the obstacles in the industry has been access to money, and now the banks are starting to open up and there is more optimism. Franchising is going well; things are going well.”

Photo provided by flickr user owlpacino.


Topics: National Restaurant Association, Operations Management, Trends / Statistics

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