Sunday, May 18, 2008

Curtain rises on Chicago restaurant show

The restaurant industry did its part today for Dr. Scholl’s and the trophy industry, converging on Chicago for its annual epic march through the aisles of McCormick Place, then rousing itself to cheer through a marathon of awards presentations. Yet the usual epidemic of blisters and vocal-chord strains were darkened this year by the whispered laments of business conditions. Operators started off cheerily, then slid into grim assessments of customer-traffic and food-cost trends. And suppliers glumly speculated that booth traffic would be tempered as operators cut back on the number of people they brought to the show, if they budgeted to come at all. Nor, they pointed out, are their ingredients costs any better than restaurateurs’.

Yet the aisles were crowded today at McCormick, with a healthy showing of red badges, that all-important sign of the operator. Trying to navigate my way through the nibblers, tire-kickers and serious shoppers, I spied a McDonald’s director, a top executive of Auntie Anne’s, a large contingent from White Castle, a number of onsite feeders, and more than a smattering of independents. It was hardly a scientific assessment. But equally casual assessments in past years found far fewer of those red badges.

In the way of trends, clearly the green movement is gaining share of tongue. It was a standard add-on to dialogues, as in, “and it’s sustainable, too, because….” Or, “how about the environmental impact?” I was sorry to miss a discussion this morning between culinary educators, students and industry officials, about what’s being taught to restaurant and hospitality students about ecological practices.

I suspect that I’ll notice a marked shift when I poke around the booths tomorrow toward the slanted. Certainly slanted tableware—a soup bowl whose bottom is slanted, so the liquid pools in the bottom for easier spooning, for instance—has been noticeable during some of my recent restaurant visits. The Gage, for instance, sells its wines-by-the-glass in small carafes that are skewed. Their bottom is flat, but the body and neck slant forward, making for a more dramatic presentation and easier pouring. More on this after I check the dishware booths in the next few days.

But undoubtedly the dominant talk of the show was about the difficulties of the time. One person cited a supplier whose costs have jumped by the scale of a moonshot because of escalating grain costs. Several recounted conversations where the participants wondered what casual-dining brands would disappear. Others speculated about what wounded brands in the market would likely be acquired, possibly for conversion.

It would have been nice to check the possibility of an acquisition with some of those brands. But it seems that several decided not to send their executives to the show this year.

1 comment:

  1. Peter,

    Hope you are having fun at the restaurant show. But alas, even we consultants and recruiters that support the industry are also feeling the pinch as I read your post from my home.