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National Restaurant Association - NRA Show: 'It's all right there'

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NRA Show: 'It's all right there'

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Antonia Asimis recently added a new party room to her four-year-old restaurant. So the owner of Nia Mediterranean Restaurant came to the National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show to look for ways to promote and furnish the addition.

"From display table to marketing ideas, it's all right there," said Asimis.

Although Asimis traveled only a few miles from her downtown Chicago restaurant to McCormick Place, more than 61,000 restaurant-industry professionals came from all over the United States and more than 100 countries to the NRA Show, which closed Tuesday. Attendance at the four-day convention and two-day International Wine, Spirits & Beer Event was up 6 percent from 2011.

Restaurant/foodservice attendance rose 8 percent from last year, while dealer/distributor attendance grew 6 percent. Retail attendance rose 21 percent, and media attendance grew 7 percent. As a result of greater attendance, the number of hotel-room nights sold increased 5 percent from last year.

Restaurant operators searched for food trucks, digital menu boards and other means to enhance their businesses. See videos and photos of the action.

Vincent Benny, vice president of purchasing for Benny & Co. , a Quebec-based full-service family restaurant, spent four days attending education sessions and looking for affordably priced food to serve in his family restaurants. He said the education sessions were especially beneficial.

Al Allamani, a manager at a buffet-style food service company in Las Vegas, said he was impressed by restaurant and foodservice technology advancements on display. After seeing some of those innovations, his company was considering investing in new high-tech equipment, including the automated Coca-Cola Freestyle machine, which he called "amazing." The Coca-Cola Co. promoted the touchscreen machine, which dispenses more than 100 combinations of drinks, customized by the consumer.

Karen Rodgers, café manager, Monarch Landing, was among a team of four from the Naperville, Ill., restaurant. They were looking for vacuum cleaners, ovens and other items to help them save money and operate more efficiently, she said.

"This show provides us the opportunities to check out lots of options and the latest products in the market," she said. "And that is what we need."

More than 1,900 companies exhibited innovations in technology, franchising, equipment, food and beverages, décor and design, as human resources, marketing, payment processing and other services. Of them, 500 were new exhibitors. The number of IWSB exhibitors spiked 40 percent from 2011.

Jollen Tan, owner of What's Cooking, a Chicago company that conducts culinary events and cooking classes, signed up for the NRA's EmployeeEdge program. EmployeeEdge is a reloadable debit card for discounts and purchases. Employers employer load wages onto the card and employees use money on the card to make payments and purchases.

"It's a great concept," said Tan, who collected $27 in 10 seconds in a money booth to promote the program. "It gives you more control of your budget, and you can use it pretty much anywhere."

The NRA Booth also featured demonstrated management and culinary demonstrations by ProStart high school students and cooking demos by Kids LiveWell partners Kraft Foods and Sodexo.

The 540,000 square feet of exhibit space featured several areas to promote specialty products or services, such as Ask the Design Experts, American Food Fair, Conserve Solutions Center, Dealer Distributor Center, Healthier Kids Fare Pavilion, International Cuisine Pavilion, Organic & Natural Pavilion and Technology Pavilion.

In the International Cuisine Pavilion, the Trade Commission of Chile featured countries that specialized in wine and olive oil. Nearby, Danielus Acas, a spokesman for Lithuanian Spirits, unveiled the company's natural fruit flavored vodkas. The long-time NRA Show exhibitor was looking for wholesale suppliers to expand its presence beyond Illinois, New York, California and Texas.

"We are very happy about the Show," Acas said. "The response has been very good."

The NRA Show also featured demonstrations and book signings by celebrity chefs and well-known restaurateurs in the World Culinary Showcase.

Other highlights of the NRA Show included the Operator Innovations Awards, the IWSB Star of the Bar Mixology Competition, the Hennessy Hill Awards, a keynote address by former President Bill Clinton, and the Ecolab Chairman's Reception and Silent Auction.

The Operation Innovation Awards were announced May 5 at the Destination: Celebration event at the Harris Theater Rooftop Terrace in Millennium Park. Patti Frank from Chicago's Roots Handmade Pizza was named Star of the Bar May 6 at the Restaurants Rock party. The Hennessy/Hill awards, which recognize excellence in military foodservice, were announced May 5 at an awards breakfast.

About 700 people attended the May 6 Ecolab silent auction, which raised $128,750 for the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation's ProStart program.

The NRA Show will return to McCormick Place May 18 through 21, 2013.

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