An Independent-Minded Alternative to the National Restaurant Association Show to Debut

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As Chicago’s hospitality industry gears up for yet another year of the massive National Restaurant Association trade show, the largest of its kind in the country, a new event is vying for the spotlight.

Utility — a new two-day trade show that grew out of a party held last year that brought rave reviews from those who attended the association’s show — is designed to offer a slimmed-down, indie-friendly opportunity for chefs, restaurateurs, and small business owners. The alternative event will debut on Sunday, May 19 at Fairlie, a private events venue at 339 N. Bell Avenue on the city’s Near West Side.

The creation of Jenny Goodman and Alex McCrery, founders of New York City-based hospitality workwear brand Tilit, Utility is designed to lavish special attention on independent restaurants and the ecosystems of businesses around them. “It needed to be something that really supported people rather than just showing up to sell shit,” says McCrery.

Organizers promise high-profile events like a restaurant pitch competition with a $20,000 cash prize for the winner, and panel discussions with culinary leaders and entrepreneurs including Kevin Boehm, co-founder and CEO of Chicago’s James Beard Award-winning Boka Restaurant Group, celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, North Carolina chef Cheetie Kumar (Ajja), and restaurateur Ellen Yin of Philadelphia’s High Street Hospitality Group. Panel moderators include Eater Chicago editor Ashok Selvam. Chase Bank reps will be on-site to answer financial questions and nonprofit show sponsors Independent Restaurant Coalition and Southern Smoke Foundation will offer resources as well.

The trade show floor will feature vendors like restaurant supplies retailer J.B. Prince, hospitality hiring platform Culinary Agents, and kitchen footwear brand MISE; and for some local flavor, cook-offs starring cheffy spins on Chicago-style hot dogs and tavern-style pizzas. In a nod to the often heavily inked industry, local artists from Great Lakes Tattoo will be on-site with small flash designs.

The National Restaurant Association casts a particularly long shadow as reps tout its four-day trade show as the largest gathering of food service pros in the Western hemisphere. The lobbying organization, sometimes dubbed “the other NRA,” held its first gathering in 1919 in Kansas City with around 200 attendees. The NRA relocated in 1927 to Chicago and as the decades passed, these meetings grew into full-fledged annual conventions drawing thousands from across the country and the globe. In 2023, the show saw about 55,000 attendees, a cohort that also generally books a lot of hotel rooms and restaurant reservations in a boon for Chicago hospitality at large.

Tilit has participated in several NRA shows in the past, but as the years wore on, its staggering size left Goodman and McCrery feeling marginalized among big brands and the ever-growing costs of exhibition fees, travel, product transport, and booth construction. “Right now, it’s a $50,000 to $75,000 entry point to get into these [major trade shows] by the time you pay the fees to be there, build a booth, spend time in hotels and on flights and all those things,” says McCrery.

At Utility, the entry fees for exhibitors range from $500 to $1,000. “Best case, this will maybe be a wake-up call for some of the other existing shows to improve the way they’re treating the industry and showing up to have more offerings for people in small business with lower budgets,” he says. “I think sort of forcing that hand and that change is important.”

For Goodman, the show is also a chance to how seemingly small decisions — the location of a stall, for example — can make or break an exhibitor’s experience. She recounts one NRA experience when she was nearly nine months pregnant and arrived at McCormick Place to discover that Tilit’s booth was placed beside a company that sold “stinky, smelly” urinal cakes.

An odor was not the impression Goodman wanted attendees to associate with her brand. “We didn’t feel like the show was curated or had our best interests at heart,” she says. “To me, this is the nail in the coffin — I don’t ever want to come back to this because I want to be with people who are like-minded… the needs are just different from what fast food and casual chains need.”

Goodman and McCrery first conceived of Utility nearly four years ago, and in 2023, they tested the waters in Chicago with a party — a mini trade show with panel chat, pastry showcase, and Italian beef throwdown where Top Chef Joe Flamm (Rose Mary, BLVD Steakhouse) emerged victorious. If Utility proceeds without a hitch, the duo plans to increase the grant money at future shows (McCrery is aiming for a $100,000 prize).

Eventually, they envision holding two or more Utility shows per year in other cities. In the meantime, they hope the timing of Utility will allow many to attend their event as well as the NRA trade show, which runs from Saturday, May 18 through Tuesday, May 21.

Utility, Sunday, May 19, and Monday, May 20, 339 N. Bell Avenue. Tickets (one-day passes for $30, two-day passes for $50) are available online.

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