As the National Restaurant Association prepares to welcome 65,000 attendees to the annual NRA Show in Chicago Saturday through Tuesday, bakers at the locally based Eli’s Cheesecake Co. were putting the final touches on a 1,000-pound cheesecake to be shared in a Saturday celebration to honor the group and the exhibition’s 100th anniversary.
The association held its first national restaurant show in Kansas City, Mo., in 1919.
“I’ve been looking back at our past 100 years, looking through almost all the exhibit guidebooks,” Heftman said in a phone interview Thursday. “What has struck me is: The restaurant industry challenges in 1919 are much the same, and yet different.
“We were having sessions on and conversations around labor challenges, government interference [and] spiking food costs,” Heftman said. “As I went through the decades, topics would roll along but labor challenges and government interference have been issues since the show began.”
Another thing that has remained the same is what Heftman calls “a hunger to learn from experts in different segments of the industry willing to share their knowledge with operators. That power of sharing and learning from each other has not changed.”
How the NRA does it has changed, however, she said.
“There’s more technology involved,” Heftman said. “We bring people together digitally over the course of the year, not just at the show. It opens their minds to all sorts of possibilities.”
To kick off the festivities, the thousand-pound cheesecake will be sliced and served to show attendees at 2:30 p.m. CDT at McCormick Place’s Grand Concourse.
The cake will be cut by NRA president and CEO Dawn Sweeney and Ted Balestreri, chairman of the 100th Anniversary celebration and a former association chair.
On Thursday, Sweeney announced her retirement at the end of the year.
Sweeney will lead Sunday’s centerpiece educational program, the “Future of Dining” discussion with CEOs from full-service and quick-service restaurants as well as grocery and convenience stores.
A Monday “SuperSession” will bring together four experts to offer ideas on consumer-facing and back-of-house innovations that are allowing restaurants to use technology, like artificial intelligence, to ease operations and improve efficiencies.
“The energy of this industry is like no other,” Heftman said. “While the operators may be competing for share of stomach, they are great friends and they are great sharers of information, tools and techniques. They want the hospitality industry to be at its very best.”
The NRA Show 2019 website offers information, schedules and registration information.