The National Restaurant Association show: It’s great to be back

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As of this writing, the 2022 National Restaurant Association Show is still ahead of us (May 21-24). It will have been three very long years since the restaurant community last gathered for this event, and as the gathering draws closer, I suspect I’m not the only one relishing the opportunity to be with my peers. Food may be the defining element of a restaurant, but people are the extra ingredient that makes it all work. The relationship between people and restaurants is akin to yeast and baking. The analogy does not need to be elaborated for this audience!

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been to Chicago for the show. Now in my 10th year on the National Restaurant Association Board of Directors, traveling to the Windy City during the month of May is a much anticipated ritual. You can bet that as soon as I make my connecting flight to Atlanta, I’ll probably bump into other people making their own trips up north.

Once I reach the Chicago airport (I’ll put aside the merits of O’Hare or Midway, which might be a blog in itself), the odds increase for squeezing flesh. (Personal note: the use of this phrase is a good sign of a receding pandemic!). And so it will be when I travel around the city and arrive at the hotel. After three long years, each encounter will be embraced in a new way. After all, we had never been forced into isolation by a pandemic. And after three long years, the opportunity to be with our industry peers – many of whom are more than just acquaintances – is something we will never take for granted.

Being at the show is always a reminder of the depth and breadth of our industry. Catering and catering businesses collectively employed 14.5 million people at the start of 2022 (a figure still well below the 15.4 million employed before the pandemic). When we think of the restaurant industry and the people who make it up, frontline and backroom team members come to mind first. They are the “yeast” that gives rise to the preparation and serving of good food.

I wish that each of them had the opportunity, at least once, to walk the aisles of the McCormick Center! Having a well-rounded perspective on the full scope of our industry and the indirect opportunities it offers would likely motivate many to engage in their work with renewed enthusiasm and vigor. I was well into my restaurant career before attending my first NRA show, and I’ll never forget the feeling of admiration it instilled in me. The first impression was powerful and lasting.

While it may not be practical for companies to send all of their employees to Chicago (even once), I strongly recommend that a concerted effort be made to send a variety of people from different disciplines within the organization. Your team will develop a better understanding of all the moving parts of the industry and the interlocking nature of different trades and service providers. Without fail, innovation is ever-present and can inspire your team in ways you might never have imagined.

In the end, the show’s main draw is not the latest shiny gear, nor the popular stalls offering the latest culinary delights. (By the way, make sure you pack clothes that have those elastic waistbands – you’ll need them). It’s not the educational seminars that make Chicago’s unpredictable weather in May worth it. (Although you definitely don’t want to miss these sessions). Just like the industry itself, people make the difference.

People are the draw; they are the gravitational force that draws me to Chicago. Among them are people who have been in my life for almost 50 years, but this year more than any before it, I look forward to the new relationships that may be forged. Whether I’ve known you for 40 years or 40 seconds, I can’t wait to shake your hand!

Don Fox is Chief Executive Officer of Firehouse Subs, where he leads the strategic growth of Firehouse Subs, one of the world’s leading restaurant brands. Under his leadership, the brand has grown to more than 1,200 restaurants in 45 states, Puerto Rico, Canada and non-traditional locations. Don sits on various influential boards in the business and nonprofit communities, and is a respected speaker, commentator, and published author. It was recognized by Nation’s Restaurant News as the 2011 Operator of the Year. In 2013, it received the prestigious Silver Plate Award from the International Food Manufacturers Association (IFMA).

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