Like everyone else, we're still recovering from last weekend's NRA Show, which was bigger and busier than the 2011 event.
The floor held 500 new exhibitors year-over-year, as well as a crowd that was 6 percent larger.
Word on the street from our press perspective was that this year's edition was the best — for both offerings and leads — the show has been in a couple of years. Here are some of our highlights from this year's show, the NRA's 93rd annual:
Mobile is everywhere. Even the actual show had an app this year to help the crowd navigate Chicago's McCormick Place.
There were also mobile exhibits promoting mobile payments (VeriFone), smartphone-supported customer loyalty programs (geoMOFO), mobile marketing strategies (RockitDigital Marketing), app development (QA Graphics), analytics and mobile couponing (VIBE), and more.
Robyn Spotto, from geoMOFO, said the show's attendees had a big interest in her company's mobile program, particularly because of the loyalty connection.
"Restaurants know more than ever that they need loyal customers and this (mobile) is the way they are engaging with them," she said.
Sarah Erdman, from QA Graphics, said her company jumped into the mobile space because there still seems to be a void in the restaurant space, and therefore a big opportunity.
Digital is also everywhere. Digital menu boards and signage had a bit of a bigger presence at this year's show, particularly as restaurants scramble to meet impending federal guidelines to display nutritional information.
At last year's show, there were 23 computerized menu board vendors, versus 26 this year; not a huge jump but an increase nonetheless. The digital space extends beyond menu boards. QA Graphics had its nutritional kiosk on display, showcasing the information available at a couple of McDonald's units.
John Kunze, from Watchfire Signs, which has created exterior "welcome" signs for Dunkin' Donuts, Dairy Queen, McDonalds, Mellow Mushroom and Buffalo Wild Wings, said it was his company's first time at the show.
"We've seen significant growth in the past couple of years in the restaurant space and realized we should invest in these shows. The industry is realizing they ought to be paying attention to digital," he said. "Digital menu boards are great, but you also have to get those customers in the store first."
Gluten-free is no passing trend. Alice Bast, president of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, hit the show floor just as news of her organization's partnership with Domino's Pizza was breaking.
"Three years ago, we had 32 vendors in a gluten-free pavilion. Now there's no need for a pavilion because businesses are just incorporating gluten-free into their business. We're beyond a trend now. The growth in just three years has been amazing," Bast said.
Green is also not a passing trend. Speaking of growth, the ConServe Solutions Center pavilion sold out in a month and a half, its fastest fill-up since making its floor debut three years ago. Chris Moyer, senior project manager for ConServe, echoed Best's observation that green, sustainable practices have moved beyond being a trend and into the mainstream.
"We had a larger target to hit this year, and we hit it. We kept selling out space and increasing it. This concept now sells itself," he said.
Dozens of other mainstream companies touted their green features, even if they weren't positioned in the pavilion. Numerous Kitchen Innovations award winners, for example, rolled out concepts that saved energy for restaurant operations.
Glenn Roskilly, from Max-R, which creates waste/recycling receptacles out of 100-percent recycled milk jugs, said the company has doubled its growth every two to three years, and NRA Show attendees' interest in the products has reflected that.
"More and more chains and operators are getting this, and why it's important," he said.
POS Systems have evolved. In 2011, there were 51 point-of-sale vendors at the NRA Show. This year, there were 64. The growth in POS companies reflects the increasing demand from consumers to have a fast, easy transaction, either via touchscreen or mobile device.
This trend benefits operators as well, since many POS systems now include robust architecture to support business intelligence solutions.
During the show, Heartland Payment Systems launched its SmartLink for Restaurants, a managed network service that provides secure card transaction data and back office information. The system segments electronic payment transactions from other network traffic and helps ensure PCI compliance while allowing for rapid implementation of other critical applications.
David Miller said his company's Aeris POS system has the ability to automatically generate re-orders by logging every sale. "Once a sale goes through, the system recognizes that you're now down those ingredients and sends the order to the vans in that area. It's more efficient. With every order, it's alerting the commissary," he said.
Social media marketing is getting creative. ChowNow incorporates online ordering capability directly onto a brand's Facebook page, so the 800 million-plus users of the site never have to leave to order their favorite food.
CEO Brian Zuercher's company VenuSeen scours social media sites for brands that have been tagged in a photo and then shares those photos with each brand for use in marketing strategies or other promotions. "We're trying to tell the real story of a brand through the consumer photographer. It's just another way for brands to deepen their relationships with their customers," he said.
The "mommy" blogger trend was recognized in an educational session that included Lauren Barash, director of PR/corporate communications at Moe's Southwest Grill, Stacie Connerty, from The Divine Miss Mommy, and Rick Wion, director of social media at McDonald's. The panel discussed how brands can establish professional, beneficial relationships with mom bloggers — one of the most connected and influential groups online. Some focus has shifted to this group because "moms are the decision makers, we make the buying decisions," said Jennifer Bilbro, founder of OuttoEatwithKids.com.
Also during the show, NCR Corp. launched Customer Voice, a Web-based customer loyalty, retention and referral tool that enables operators to monitor customer satisfaction, deal with dissatisfaction immediately and turn happy customers into brand ambassadors through social media channels, including Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.
- The NRA Show did not include a food truck pavilion as it has for the past two years. Instead, mobile restaurants were placed sporadically throughout the floor. There were eight participants this year, versus six last year
- The inaugural Healthier Kids Fare pavilion was placed in the spotlight Monday morning when the NRA and HealthyDining announced their Kids LiveWell program has grown to 96 brands — quadrupling membership since its inception last summer. Exhibitors that specialized in marketing/promotions toward children grew from 16 in 2011 to 22 this year.
- Consumers are clearly becoming more comfortable with touchscreen technology. Touchscreen vendors jumped from 28 last year to 39 this year, while self-service kiosk companies increased from 23 to 27.
- Restaurants are competing to retain their most loyal customers because it makes good business sense. Exhibitors in the customer loyalty space jumped from 25 in 2011 to 36 this year.
- The U.S. organic industry grew by 9.5 percent overall in 2011 to reach $31.5 billion in sales. Showcasing that growth was the increase in organic vendors on the NRA Show floor — from 59 in 2011 to 65 this year.
Read more about trends and statistics.
Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.