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  • Writer's pictureGarin Wong

The Future of Foodservice: Energy and Excitement at the 2024 National Restaurant Association Show

As culinary landscapes evolve and consumer preferences continue to diversify, the foodservice industry stands at the forefront of innovation. One of the pivotal elements shaping this transformation is the cutting-edge equipment showcased at events like the National Restaurant Association Show. In 2024, this premier gathering once again served as a platform for unveiling the latest trends and technologies revolutionizing how food is prepared, served, and enjoyed, and let me tell you, this year’s show was HUGE!

According to the National Restaurant Association, the show 2024 floor spanned over 723,400 square feet. That’s more than 12 football fields offering attendees the opportunity to explore products and services. In addition, they estimated the attendance increased by 6% totaling more than 58,000 foodservice professionals.

I attended the show at Chicago’s McCormick Place every day for four days. On the last day, I planned a couple of hours to circle back to vendors I’d missed or wanted to spend more time with. There was one specific vendor who gave me their booth number that I couldn’t find so I asked the Show Service Rep for directions. I was directed over a bridge to another space filled with vendors that I didn’t even know existed the first three days! Somehow, I managed to see the entire show, get through it all, and returned to my office in New York with so much to share with the elite|studio e team and bragging rights for how many steps I got in that week! If you’ve never been and plan to go in the future, my advice is to bring comfortable shoes … to the NRA Show or any show for that matter.

Before I dive into the equipment specifics, as a veteran of the industry and frequent attendee of Trade Shows, I noticed some positive differences in the layout of this year’s event. Many vendors were grouped by theme, so if you had a particular interest, the vendor was easier to find in the past. As a matter of fact, there were eight pavilions on the Show floor offering curated experiences tailored to specific interests.

A Taste of the States Wisconsin Cheese at National Restaurant Association Show 2024.

A Taste of the States really caught my attention. For those who enjoy locally sourced food like cheese from Wisconsin, seafood from Maryland and syrup from Vermont, it was all right here! The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture’s newly branded A Taste of the States gives small- and medium-sized U.S. food and beverage exporters the advantage of exhibiting at this premier event.

There were also several pavilions dedicated to international offerings. The Global Food Expo featured equipment, food and other vendors by the manufacturing country. The countries I noticed were China, Brazil, and Turkey, but I do think it’s important to note that there was participation from more than 120 countries at the event! The show also featured a Bellavita Italian Pavilion and Iberica Spanish Pavilion.

Additionally, the Startup Alley highlighted first-time exhibitors and emerging organizations presenting food and beverage items, equipment, technology, and more, contributing fresh ideas to the foodservice industry. 

Nina Curtis, plant-based chef, during a cooking demo at the National Restaurant Association Show.

And, although not a dedicated pavilion at the show, I think it’s important to note that as health and wellness continues to increase in importance, there were aisles and aisles of vegan food at the 2024 National Restaurant Association Show. Afterwards, I learned that more than one-third of the Food and Beverage Awards (FABI) were given to plant-based products, providing even more support for this observation of more sustainable and eco-friendly dietary choices. Award-winning plant-based chef Nina Curtis even shared some of her imaginative cuisines during a live cooking demo (see pic).

While I love talking about all things food (have you seen my Instagram?), I do need to share some of the trends that the elite|studio e team and I saw at the show regarding foodservice design and equipment. You’ll certainly be hearing more about these from us and seeing some of them in your future foodservice concepts and drawings.

Doing More with Less

Companies are continuing to develop equipment that can produce more and do more in a smaller footprint. With real estate prices continuing to increase, companies are looking for smaller square footage, which of course means kitchen sizes are decreasing too. Equipment like the iVario, which has six pieces in one, or a small countertop pizza oven help provide a varied menu offering despite smaller spaces.

The Buzz is Sleek and Simple

Aesthetics are coming into play in particular for barista bars. Countertops are no longer featuring the giant, awe-inspiring espresso machine and are moving toward a more sleek and almost invisible machine. Companies like Modbar, Scanomat , Marco, Kegco and others are offering espresso, pour-over coffee, steam, boilers, kegerators, etc. with all of the engineering and equipment under the counter and a simple, sleek tap on top. For operators, it’s a big shift but it provides the opportunity for them to remove barriers and connect with the consumer.

The images below (from Modbar and Kegoco respectively) illustrate the sleekness of the complete project as well as the inside and outside of the hot coffee tap equipment seen at the Show.

Cutting-Edge Equipment

You know our team loves to talk about innovations, creativity and all things making a significant impact on the industry. The Kitchen Innovation Awards defines the gold standard of foodservice equipment innovations featuring new and enhanced technologies, automation, efficiency, safety, sustainability and more. 

Evo America has redefined the limits of ventless with the launch of the EVent Open Canopy Hood.

We discuss ventless equipment all the time, especially here in New York and other large cities where traditional hoods are not allowed on several floors of a building. However, it’s still building up as many companies are hopping on the bandwagon and others are improving it. For example, a few weeks before the National Restaurant Association Show, we had the opportunity to meet with Evo America to preview it’s newest (and now award-winning product.) Evo America has redefined the limits of ventless with the launch of the EVent Open Canopy Hood that uses ozone and cyclonic separation to remove grease laden vapors from the effluent so effectively that it can accommodate high volume ventless frying and cooking proteins simultaneously. 

The KI Awards also showcased technology, especially robots. While we’ve seen these in the past, this year it appeared abundant. Here’s what I’ll say about robots and robotic vending. Yes, they save on labor, but there is no replacement for human quality and control check for so many of these mechanisms. For example, the French Fry robot is basically an arm … it dumps the fries into the fryer basket and cooks them for a certain amount of time. However, if they need 10 more seconds to be fully cooked or five seconds less so they don’t burn, how does the robot know? It doesn’t.

That said, the Alpha Grill (also a KI Award recipient) seems to have an answer to this … at least when it comes to burgers. The patties are consistent because there’s a built-in temperature check, so you can watch your burgers being made, automatically pressed, and then temp checked based on your taste – medium, rare, or well done. I’m not sure how this can be applied to the other robots yet, but I’m sure we’ll get there soon.

The image on left features the Frybot 3.0 and on the right is the Alpha Grill.

Congratulations to all the winners of the 20th Annual Kitchen Innovation Awards. We’re looking forward to seeing what these manufacturers and others come up with for next year’s bigger and better National Restaurant Association Show. Hope to see you there!





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