It’s Business As Usual at the National Restaurant Association Show

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Crowds wander through a wide hallway with signs hanging from the ceiling.
The National Restaurant Association Show took over McCormick Place from May 21-24.
Chris Peters/Eater Chicago

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At the country’s largest restaurant trade show, the industry tried to pretend it was still 2019

by Aimee Levitt

Photography by Chris Peters

The National Restaurant Association’s annual trade show took over McCormick Place last weekend, where both the vendors and attendees — mostly unmasked — did their best to pretend that the entire restaurant industry was back to normal, or at least what constituted normal in 2019. Vendors showed off dishes, cookware, grills, stoves, chef jackets, patio heaters, name tags, mixers large enough to hold a small adult, plant-based meats, non-alcoholic canned cocktails, environmentally friendly takeout containers, newfangled POS systems (some connected to bitcoin), urinal screens — everything a modern restaurant could possibly need, and quite a few things it could probably do without.

Several booths at a trade show offering cookware, dishes, and energy drinks.
Anything a restaurant could possibly need was for sale.

In the keynote address on Saturday afternoon, Alexis Ohanian, founder of Reddit (and husband of Serena Williams), advised restaurant owners to appeal to customers’ sense of FOMO, or fear of missing out, by creating special and unique experiences, including rotating menus and limited-run items.

But most of the items on display were variations on things that already existed. Whether they taste better or work more efficiently is up to consumers to determine.


The WizKid Splash Hog urinal screen prevents splashing, but there are also antimicrobial mats, just in case. Meanwhile, Noveltia’s Gabinetto table-side racks keep bags off the floor. The mannequins were for display purposes only.

Food substitutes

Blind Tiger, based in Erie, Pennsylvania, manufactures bottled spirit-free Prohibition-era cocktails (which seemed to be the entire point of Prohibition-era cocktails, at least officially?). The name comes from the practice of underground bars leaving stuffed tigers in the window to signal that illegal booze was available after hours. Meanwhile, Yondu is a plant-based flavor booster that serves the same function as other umami-rich foods anchovies, aged cheese, and shrimp paste except without the animal protein: it’s made from soybeans and eight different vegetables. Meanwhile, plant-based meats are old-hat by now, but the soy-based proteins from Before the Butcher are unusually tasty.

Four bottles with art deco labels lined up on a table.
Blind Tiger’s spirit-free Prohibition-era cocktails will be available in Chicago soon.

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