Back for another year and preparing for more than 65,000 restaurant industry professionals, the National Restaurant Association show will return to the McCormick Place in Chicago this month.

From May 20 to May 23, the organization will host 2,300 exhibitors representing more than 900 product categories. “And that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” says National Restaurant Association (NRA) Head of Conventions Mary Pat Heftman. “We have loads of specially curated attractions sprinkled throughout the show floor focusing on emerging technologies, unique ingredients, and shifting trends, including Alternative BiteStyle, American Food Fair, Organic and Natural Pavilion, Innovation Hub, the Kitchen Innovations Award pavilion, and FABI awardees.”

Heftman says one of the biggest changes since last year’s show is education delivery, which is being brought closer to audiences on the show floor and features “quick-hit content” so attendees can get what they need and get back to work. “We’ve fine-tuned the programming to impart knowledge our audiences can use to improve business operations,” she says. “We have dozens of sessions planned, covering subjects as varied as business operations, sales and marketing, food and nutrition, and workforce development. Each session will be delivered in 30 to 45 minutes, ensuring attendees get what they need for a manageable time investment.”

At this year’s show, bar professionals will also have the chance to participate in specialized sessions hosted or moderated by some of the leading industry experts. From cocktail program development to the science of bar menus and social media, each session will explore bar trends, pain points, and best practices for profitability. The NRA has divided the BAR Management sessions into four targeted tracks: Beverage Trends and Innovation; Bar Food and Menu Development; Team Training and Building; and Marketing and Social Media. 

Returning to the show this year is the made-in-Italy food and wine expo Bellavita, which will showcase food and beverages from more than 60 Italian producers and culinary demos from the chefs and sommeliers at Bellavita Food and Wine Theater. Chefs Rick Bayless, Stephanie Izard, and Ming Tsai will provide a glimpse into their cooking techniques and recipes through the World Culinary Showcase. And at the Foodservice Food-amental Studio, attendees will have the chance to roll up their sleeves and experiment with processes and techniques behind some modern food trends.

“While we reference ourselves as the foodservice industry, such a broad term doesn’t necessarily do justice to the varied audiences from throughout the supply chain who converge on the NRA Show each May. For every chef de cuisine roaming the aisles for culinary inspiration, there’s a dealer on the lookout for the latest and greatest equipment to offer buyers. And for every healthcare, K-12, or college foodservice director hunting for products and services to keep his  operation fresh, there’s a C-store owner just wading into retail foodservice hoping to pick up some tricks of the trade,” Heftman says. “While there’s undoubtedly overlap, generally speaking, our diverse audiences have disparate challenges and needs. Therefore, our charge at the NRA Show is to provide a wide variety of original equipment manufacturers on the show floor and education so that each audience will come away with concrete solutions to lingering pain points.”

Returning for its 20th year will be the annual Championship BBQ and Cookout, where Chicago chefs face off to feed 1,000 industry chefs and operators. This year’s competition and networking event will be held at the Chicago Illuminating Company, and proceeds will benefit World Central Kitchen—an international organization led by Chef José Andrés that uses its network of chefs to find sustainable solutions to end world hunger—and the Greater Chicago Food Depository. Championship BBQ and Cookout founder Barbara Mathias says past events have benefited individuals around the world through World Central Kitchen.

“A team of chefs went to Haiti where a school lunch program was being run by women who had to cook on charcoal because they didn’t have cooking equipment,” she says. “The walls were all black with charcoal and their lungs were getting [damaged]. José organized through his connections, and the funds that we raised, to have clean cooking equipment for them, and then a team of chefs came in and trained them to eventually operate a bakery in that space. So after the children are fed with clean cooking equipment, then the ladies all get to work and create all these breads and baked goods to sell so it’s a self-sustaining operation.”

For those attending their first NRA show this year, Heftman advises coming up with an on-floor strategy and downloading the NRA Show app to avoid being overwhelmed. “Attendees should also expect to be amazed at the scale of the show, which takes place over three McCormick Place halls,” she says. “What are you hoping to get out of the show and how do you achieve that? What education sessions must you attend? Who must you meet with?”

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