3 Takeaways From the Restaurant Show

FER editors point to products that save time, offer sustainable advantages or unlock one-of-a-kind solutions.

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Organizers expected 55,000-plus attendees in 2024. Photo courtesy of the National Restaurant Association Show.

This past week’s National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago delivered an expanded show floor—10% larger than in 2023—and some 2,240-plus exhibitors. And while organizers are finalizing numbers, they anticipated more than 55,000 industry professionals would participate, marking one of the largest shows since 2019. FER editors visited with many manufacturers on the show floor. Along with artificial intelligence and robotics, which was best on display in the Kitchen Innovations Showroom, the editors found the following product themes:

Need for speed. Combi ovens are already faster than convection ovens. And now they’re even faster as at least two manufacturers have added microwave capabilities. In one example, the unit runs up to 30% faster than the maker’s traditional combi oven. In the always-hopping coffee realm, several machines catered to the drive-thru. One model launched within the past year can be programmed to maintain a set capacity within a built-in 1-gal. urn during peak hours. Off-peak, the unit can brew bean-to-cup, dispensing a 16-oz. cup in about 40 seconds. On the low-tech side, a food processor accessory makes quick work of stacking sliced tomatoes.

Focus on sustainability. Manufacturers continue to find ways for products to use less energy and water. One line of ice machines features an insulated evaporator so it gets cold quickly, among other benefits, to reduce energy use. The ice machines save up to 20% below Energy Star standards, the manufacturer says. Additionally, another maker’s line of refrigeration products comes in environmentally friendly stainless inside and out. Both manufacturers use R-290, a low-GWP refrigerant. On the hot side, one maker of deep fat fryers touted its efficiency stats on one line, with its largest model of the bunch (75 lb.) boasting 72% energy efficiency. Another maker expects to ship its first energy-efficient electric ranges to customers this fall, while one internationally based gas cooking equipment manufacturer says several of its products are eligible for energy rebates in five U.S. states.

Specialized solutions. And while combi ovens or ice machines may serve as more mainstream equipment, FER editors spotted several less ordinary products. One maker’s mobile decontamination cabinet uses UV-C and heat together to get rid of viruses and bacteria on cutting boards, knives, ladles or other items. Another manufacturer debuted a chamber that can ferment up to 8 lb. of plant-based protein (think tempeh, koji or even sauerkraut) in 24 hours, while also maintaining logs of temperature and holding times for HACCP compliance. Menu innovation opportunities and food waste/cost reduction mark a couple more benefits of the unit, they say. On the beverage side, one company showed its powered sugarcane juicers—one of the only NSF-certified models on the market—which use rollers to extract the sweet liquid from a sugarcane stalk; it says the product would be a fit for smoothie shops and health-geared beverage concepts. Finally, over in the Lakeside Center, sanitation and theater merged in a front-of-house cabinet for shellfish. The well-lit unit circulates and cascades 35°F, UV-sterilized salt water over three or six pans of product, keeping bacteria at bay while drawing attention to fresh offerings.

Looking ahead, several makers hinted at product developments to come—some of which are set to debut at The NAFEM Show in February 2025. For videos and photos from the National Restaurant Association Show, visit the FER media gallery.

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