USA National Restaurant Industry Trade Show 2016

Chicago 2016

The annual NRA trade show in Chicago USA is one of the largest food service and hospitality trade shows in the world. It’s simply massive, acres of equipment, consumables, foods and training and information sessions, held over four days, you need at least two-three days to really get a good look around and absorb everything. If you get a chance to go it is a must, details here The thing about the USA food service market is its shear size, the number of food outlets and the amount of food they serve in these, from franchises and high end restaurants and bars  through to institutional catering in schools, hospitals and defense, combined with the  extraordinarily high eat out rate of Americans means this is big business, bigger than anywhere else in the world.

NRA Trade showtubo chef 2NRA 2016

Having said the above one would assume that the latest high tech and high end equipment would be on show here, well it is and it isn’t also!? Why the latter? Perhaps conservative, reliability and home grown manufacturing are some of the reasons. The states has strong and proud manufacturing sector, the total opposite of Australia, a very high percentage of the equipment used in the USA food service market is 100% USA made, and in some cases only ever sold in the USA market. Much of this has to do with the massive fast food industry and the low skill levels that are associated with the industry. There are many kitchen equipment/machines designed to remove labor and or skill out of the equation as much as possible. There are also many franchises where the national store level numbers in thousands of stores, per franchise! So if you are franchise X and you need a machine that will do X, Y and Z and make it super easy for your staff, you can easily have a machine/appliance designed and built for your exact needs, with thousands of guaranteed sales for that unit the manufacturer is all too happy to design and build a solution bespoke for that franchise company. It’s not uncommon to find food franchise head offices and food equipment manufacturers in close proximity to each other.

So as a result you will find lots of clever equipment and appliances that have very specific design specifications, features that are perfect for that franchise and well worth the extra costs involved, but for industry outside of that circle its often null and void or cost prohibitive.

The other big thing about USA equipment is that its  designed to:

A) do a specific job well B) do it with extremely high volume rates C) be incredibly durable and reliable, aesthetic’s are on the bottom of the priority list D) its large, kitchens are generally larger in the states with more space dedicated to  kitchens in the initial building phase than typically seen here. E) It appears to be expensive at first glance, until you understand the $$$ that the equipment will assist in producing over the years, as previously mentioned everything in the states is Big and Busy..the sales volume that typifies a US food service operation makes most of what we do in Australia look like a part time hobby!

There is a large portion of hands on human labor still in the US food service equipment industry, and that’s a good thing, its great to know that your choices help real people not robots! There is plenty of high tech in the manufacturing sector, but matched with an equal amount of human skill where required, i think that’s where the robust and reliable foundations come from, people being involved and all local business supporting each other.  Some of the biggest brands are still either family owned or staff owned operations!

I find for busy food service applications is pretty hard to beat US Spec equipment. It may often  be uglier but it works, its often simpler technology wise, and its reliable. Safe to say that if franchise X,Y,Z are using Brand equipment A,B,C you know that those major franchise offices have conducted large scale heavy duty tests on that equipment and the manufacturers have designed it to be as reliable as possible, and be able to meet the tasks needs, anything less would put there business are risk of future business with that franchise group and or the other franchise groups through loss of reputation. Brand reputation based on reliability, serviceability and functionality is everything in the states. The relationships between equipment brands, suppliers and food service operators are often long standing and closely guarded.

A lot of what I saw I had seen before, but it also helped reinforce why some of these items are worth considering, and then there were some new things, and or different takes on existing.

Here is a few examples of some interesting  products that stood out, all in all there are far two many to cover!

Turbo chef, a brand renowned for high speed impingement cooking solution’s have a great compact double deck pizza oven, which does what they have failed to do in the past, that is provide some visual presentation to the the normally unattractive high speed cooking process .

Turbo ChefFood trucks and BBQ trailer

Whilst food banquet carts and trolleys are not new and there is plenty of choice out there, most I would have to say most are built to a price, and that’s the market loves nothing better than a cheap product. It is hard to find carts that are simply so much better and worth spending the extra dollars on, in the long run the extra upfront will paid off as your cart will last many years , not have to be replaced every 2-3 years which is not uncommon with some of the inferior product i see in the industry. Most of the cheaper units also really don’t hold temperature well, either too hot or too cold, and none address the ‘transport time’ and keeping the food hot in the process.

These Metro carts are a stand out, bomb proof construction, massive bumper rails, big castors that can handle the bumps, special plastic bumper sections to handle the knocks and door handles that wont fall off!

Added to these features is ‘battery power back up’ Yes you read right, switch it over to battery during the transport phase so it keeps doing what it was designed to do! Simple solution to an age old problem, even better if where you are catering from lacks power! Its even got a nifty built in white board for product/menu identification and recording food temperatures and loading times, no more texta scribble on the stainless steel, simple solution again to an old problem.  Heavy duty tray supports so your pans don’t fall when the clips fail! Big winner this one.

Metro Banquet Cart metro 2

Induction cooking, whilst not new its now starting to become common place commercially as chefs get used to it. Whats to get used to you ask? Everything really, its silent, no residual heat, no visual heat and is way more efficient faster  accurate to cook with, and saves operating costs substantially. Still the off putting factor is the initial purchase price, its expensive, and it really shouldn’t be, its just a volume issue, once the volumes of sales and manufacturing increases the prices will come down. This unit I spotted by Garland was a beauty, expensive though. I have some great economical induction solution’s that I often add into my designs, same power and precision for a fraction of the cost, also easier to service. Hatco are also entering the induction space also.

Garland Induction RangeHatco Induction

Pizza Pizza Pizza, its everywhere and it’s big business and one of the most profitable , there was no shortage of equipment on display for this sector. What was noticeable though was a rise in ready to go genuine stone earth pizza ovens, gas/wood with all sorts of attractive finishes..a lot of this in the past was built to order on site, especially if you wanted an attractive product…not so any more there were many options for great Artisan style pizza ovens ready to go, quicker equipment lead times, oven portability also an option.

Commercial Pizza oven



There was plenty on show in this sector. Aesthetics of the cabinets is something that the manufactures have all been working on in recent years, finally understanding that looks along with performance is important. One of the worlds biggest refrigeration manufacturers has taken big steps in this side of their product design in recent years vastly improving the finishes and options available for presentation. So much so that the have entered the high end US Domestic market with commercial designed units that have amazing domestic attractiveness, run whisper quiet and look sexy as. On the other end of the scale I got a good close up at the ‘Spec Series’ refrigeration from True, these are the fridges you want to purchase if you only ever want to purchase one fridge the rest of your career, heavy duty bomb proof construction, performance and a rugged commercial beautiful design.

True Refrigeration Refrigeration true spec series

Environment was the BIG buzz word in this sector, commercial refrigeration in the past has been a big contributor to environmental issues such as the ozone layer, in layman terms, fridge gas is not good. This is all about to change and change fast, and I would say that much of this sector is asleep in this sector. The big game changer is HYDRO CARBON for the use in commercial refrigeration, this is a massive environmental game changer, its effect on the environment is almost Nil, compared to say a rating factor of nearly 4,000 with current gasses! It is a massive difference, no doubt it won’t be too long before you will see the older style gasses removed from the market, in the mean time World leading manufacturers such as True are leading the way for others to follow. read more about Hydrocarbon and the environment here

Natural refrigerationTrue best in classNSF

Standards  and Awards, with the massive size of the US food service industry not only do they have standards for approval of equipment and associated small wares (NSF) Unlike Australia where anything goes! They also have awards , voted by end users, designers, consultants, and other influential industry experts, ‘Best in Class’ is the highest achievement, True Refrigeration have been awarded that 15 years running!

Food trucks and BBQ are two staples of the USA food scene, there was a great range of food trucks and trailers on display with plenty of innovative features, that ‘s a special design discipline with many unique challenges.

BBQ Food truck and BBQ trailer

Custom Bespoke Solutions were on the rise, with many of the main manufacturers offering bespoke solutions for discerning buyers  with large wallets! The designs were great and some of them would work really well here in Australia, however in the current market place dictate by just one Gas approval board for the nation (with different rules for each state!) it simply isn’t commercially viable for some of these companies to even consider bring their products ‘down under’.

Bespoke cooking island

The NRA is always held in Chicago, one of the biggest most vibrant cities in the USA, and they take eating and drinking out as  serious past time there. Along with the trade show there is a massive range of establishments to check out offering not only all the traditional American fare but food from around the world, and an amazing range of funky local bars.

An example of one I found by accident was an amazing local, on the edge of the city , in an old industrial building that not only had a couple of really well designed bars, and eating choices, but a ‘Library’ section with comfy lounges for sipping on your port or coffee and reading in a quite nook, through to an indoor Boci ball court and two bowling lanes down below. All this whilst feeling like an extension of your neighbors living room, and this was highlighted when the locals come in they simply shown them their ‘locals’ tag and the first drink is on the house!

Chicago local bars BAr Lounge barboci ball

For all the bad press the states often receive, I often find that their hospitality (yes I know they go hard for the tips!) puts our hospitality to shame in Australia, by this I don’t mean the food, I think we do that much better, I mean the ‘actual hospitality. Even local cheap franchise places generally go out of their way to make sure your looked after, at the top end of town the service is amazing yet not stuffy

Design wise, no expense is spared in the medium plus end of the sector, the interiors are simply amazing, much of the styles I spotted are what we have been seeing in Australia in the cities now for a little while, its just that the US do it so much better..but I guess that’s big, busy gets you, the numbers simply make the investment worthwhile there. Chicago is great place for hospitality inspiration if you know where to look, there is something at all levels to see, from food carts selling chilli spiced mango on a stick to high end formal places with waiting lists months long!

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Other notable finding at the NRA equipment wise, include an icecream dipper well that refreshes and replenishes the water in the well only when it detects the water is dirty , as apposed to running water consistently all the time, very clever , great water saver.  New Hatco Food warmers with a stylish curved appearance in a choice of colors, New Hatco Induction, True Bar refrigeration with changing color internal lights, some serious Cold Press Juicer machines from Good Nature, Duke Serving station ultimate burger making station , Exhaust canopies with self clean/wash ability, a scanner for fridges by shelf FX scans the product as it leaves/enters the fridge for auto stocktaking, better still can be linked to a users ID card and charged to their account, ideal for Staff diners, its already common in many places in the USA, Automated tortilla heater roller press pumps out hundreds of warm tortilla breads on the go, Self serve Waffle makers for buffets designed for customer use, Auto Lift Panini Grill by electrolux, top section lifts up automatically based on timer, Vollrath Manual Multi tool slicer, interchangeable cutters for heaps of solutions, the best manual tool I have seen, they also have funky shaped GN Pans to spice up the dullest of bain maries, several variations of compact portable induction pasta/noodle stations were on display, and the high tech winner a ‘bluetooth’ thermometer…the applications for this tech is extremely wide spread.

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