Several exhibitors at the NRA Show received a surprise visit yesterday from Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), who spent an hour touring the exhibit hall, chatting with exhibitors from his home state and sampling some of their products.
“I think it’s amazing,” Durbin said. “I wish I could spend three days here. It probably would take that long to see everything. I’m glad to see so many Illinois exhibitors. We’re so happy to have this show every year. It’s an important part of the city and state economy.”
A former restaurant owner, Durbin recognizes the importance of restaurants as job creators. “For so many people, their first job is in a restaurant,” he said. “Mine was, and for five years I owned a restaurant, so I have a feel for the challenges they face.”
Durbin, the Senate majority whip, has been an important voice for the restaurant industry on several issues in recent years. He was the driving force behind legislation that helped make debit card swipe fees more competitive. He also authored the Food Safety Modernization act and is a member of the “Gang of Eight” senators who are leading the push for comprehensive immigration reform.
“We’ve worked together on a lot of things over the years,” Durbin said. “We did a lot on the swipe fees, and we’ll be working together on some more things.”
Durbin’s first stop was the booth of Chicago-based Vienna Beef, a prominent supplier of Chicago-style hot dogs, sausages and other meat products. The senator accepted the offer of a hot dog with everything while he talked with company staff.
“He said there’s nothing like a Chicago hot dog,” said Thomas Pierce, Vienna’s vice president of marketing. Durbin has toured Vienna’s Chicago-based plant several times, Pierce said. “We’re a Chicago company. Our products are made in Chicago by Chicagoans. The backbone of our business is people who own their own restaurants.”
The senator then paid a visit to the booth of a company from outside the state, Baltimore-based dessert manufacturer Itaberco. Nikki DeBrouse, Itaberco’s corporate pastry chef, who said she was given a heads-up about Durbin’s visit, offered him a specially prepared recipe of yellow sponge cake with a mango syrup, vanilla mousse, salted caramel ganache and fresh mango.
“It was exciting to have him stop by and to make something special for him,” DeBrouse said.
“No more dessert!” Durbin said as he moved on from the Itaberco booth.
Durbin spent the rest of his time meeting Illinois-based exhibitors at a section of the exhibit hall hosted by the Illinois Department of Agriculture. Among those he visited was Vanee Foods, a family owned supplier of canned products based in Berkeley, Ill.
“We’re a third-generation family business, close to becoming fourth-generation,” said Chuck Vanee, the company’s assistant vice president. “My grandfather started this company with three people. We now employ over 300 and are trying to grow. It was nice to see [Durbin] stop by and show his support for family businesses.”
The 2013 NRA Show, the largest trade show in the restaurant industry, continues through Tuesday at McCormick Place in Chicago.