The National Restaurant Association, aka the NRA (no, not that NRA), has been in representing and shepherding the restaurant and service industry since 1919. Nearly as long, the NRA Show has been an annual event, bringing together vendors, restaurant owners, equipment makers, food writers and general culinary weirdos. For several years the NRA Show has taken place at McCormick Place in downtown Chicago, the biggest convention center in the country. The event is undeniably massive, lasting four days and bringing in almost 60,000 industry professionals from all over the world to network, showcase their products and shake everyone else’s greasy, sticky hands.
The variety of items to look at, taste, and mess with at the event is severely daunting. Some companies come to showcase new foods, snacks and drinks. Others come to demonstrate equipment or technologies, sometimes resulting in okay things you can sample. Others still come to display their new tableware, sanitation technology, restaurant attire and computer systems. All in all it’s a lot to take in, especially if you’re trying to fit everything into one day. Take into account the throng of perhaps the slowest walkers in the world and a stomach constantly filling with random edibles and you might want to have an ambulance waiting for you when you leave.
This was my second time at the NRA show, and lessons learned in 2011 definitely informed the decisions I made throughout the day in 2012. The smartest thing you can ever do at this thing is to start slow. You’ll be shoving sometimes-questionable food into your face for upwards of 7 hours, so no need to blow your wad in the first 90 minutes. That being said, upon entering I immediately found and destroyed probably the best piece of red velvet cake I’ve had in my life, setting the bar for the day incredibly, almost unreachably high. It was such a shock to actually taste something this good right off the bat; perfectly moist cake separated by red velvet mousse and topped with pitch perfect cream cheese icing. I almost thought about leaving immediately, fearing that the rest of the day would be a series of downhill tumbles. But then the endorphins (sugar) kicked in and I soldiered on.
Within the next five minutes I had a plastic shot glass of Budweiser dispensed from a “turbo tap” and a decent piece of pepperoni pizza served on a thin hemp crust. Massively wasted from the beer and mind-bendingly high from the hemp pizza, I stumbled upon the Aphrodite stand where I had a double chocolate chip cookie and this thing called a Sconesant which is (stay with me now) sort of like a combination of a scone and a croissant, but filled with cream. Not exactly a game changer, but it was definitely something I put in my bag to eat later. This one was the cranberry white chocolate Sconesant and it tasted like a scone with stuff in it.
Soon after I received what was probably the most hilariously small portion of ice cold mac and cheese which I spent probably 75 seconds laughing about and showing people and .000075 seconds eating. That’s the thing with the NRA show. Some vendors really pour it on thick, giving you upwards of half a sandwich or even a full sized cup of frozen yogurt. Other vendors give you a micro serving of juice or just a stringy tendon of meat, which can only make me think there is a lack of confidence or lack of means, both of which aren’t appetizing. That last sentence was written by someone who got to stuff their face like an asshole all day for free.
Somehow I found a way to continue, going up and down the first of many endless aisles of booths. It wasn’t long before I reached one of my favorite booths from last year, the Nutella booth. Flanked by comically large and (decidedly un-comically) empty tubs of the incomprehensibly great hazelnut/chocolate spread, the Nutella people served up small pieces of flatbread with Nutella and a slice of banana. It was delicious, simple, small and refined. I ate it with my pinky protruding. They also had tubs of tiny Nutella samples, of which I took many. If it weren’t so bad for you and expensive I think that a jar of Nutella could run for president and probably get a lot of votes. Perhaps one day. Nutella 2024.
Funley’s Delicious had a clever and inviting booth with a friendly staff ready to talk up their deliciously natural and not-terrible-for-you sweet snacks. The Peanut Butter Stix in the Mud and the Double Chocolate Chip Wholly Granolly Clusters were particularly tasty while not having “health food” vibes. They particularly hit the spot after taking down a legit serving of pure Australian Wagyu beef. Shortly thereafter, we stumbled upon Chef Big Shakes’ booth where he was cranking out his “Original” Shrimpburgers. There was a decent crowd around his grill, and once I got a hand and a mouth around one of the burgers I understood why. It was a piping hot, bold sandwich with perfectly crunchy shrimp and a soft bun.
It was at this point that I entered a zone of slight discomfort and pronounced disappointment, going from horrible ribs cooked on some innovative grill to the Bud Light Lime-A-Rita served in a tiny over-salted plastic cup. I walked past roughly 97 different ways to pour a beer, from a beer gun to the system that pours a beer from the bottom up to all manner of illuminated taps. There was an outstanding bite of prime rib that gave me hope, hope that was then crushed by a cup of Hawaiian Punch and a huge portion of extremely dry mac and cheese with Italian sausage and giardiniera peppers. I had a brief affair with a miniature Rueben and battled with a half-frozen slice of Eli’s Lemon Berry Cheesecake. I became sluggish, disjointed, and thought about sticking my head in a popcorn tumbler. I turned a corner and almost tripped over an extremely overweight woman sitting next to an overflowing trash can, shoes off and rubbing her feet, looking very uncomfortable.
As if granted parole from food prison, I ran into the arms of the Honey Hill Farms complex, which featured a massive array of frozen yogurt machines. Each machine had three spouts, two for different and unique flavors and one for a delicious combination of both. The sample cups where huge and I gravitated toward the combination of Dreamy Dark Chocolate and Cupcake which yielded something they called Lava Cake. It was one of the best things I ate all day, far better than the Mixi “microcreamery machine”, essentially the ATM of ice cream makers. There was a touch screen where you could choose your ice cream flavor (somehow chocolate wasn’t an option?) and your topping (I choose vanilla ice cream plus M&Ms). In 45 seconds it changes cream and sugar to ice cream. Impressive, for sure, but the ice cream itself was prohibitively sweet and littered with ice crystals. This was definitely more fun than good, and honestly not that fun after an awkward conversation with the sales rep.
There was a Philly cheese steak that was perfectly adequate and messy, chardonnay fondue that was quite excellent, an overly spicy pulled pork taco and all manner of boneless chicken wings. I wandered through a series of vegan/healthy/gluten-free booths that seemed to pander to the local/sustainable crowd. There were the delicious Lil Orbits mini-donuts, powdered and fried before my very eyes. There were French fries dusted w/ Chef’s Fun Foods seasonings like “ketchup” and “cheddar”, aiming to do away with the labor-intensive practice of dipping something into something. Broasters Chicken was in full force, peddling their fried wares, and we were all the better for it. Their potato wedges stick in my mind as being enormous and flavorful.
Perhaps the section of the NRA show most geared toward my own interests was the J&J Snack Foods booth, a sprawling octagon of fried and “baked” items kept warm under heat lamps or on rollers. Pastries stuffed with meat and cheese, pastries dusted with sugar and rotating in a case, pretzels twisted and covered in things pretzels aren’t meant to be covered in. This is pure Hot Snacks! territory, the future of horrifying and convenient food that can be yours for under $2 and eaten in under 20 seconds. There were the Top Picks Pepperoni Stuffed Sticks, four-inch-long doughy rods of pepperoni pizza goodness, perfect for eating while on the go or alone in your unlit apartment. There was the Tater Stuffer, a giant hash browns upholstered with cheese, along with similarly crammed SuperPretzel Bite-sized Poppers, filled w/ sweet cream cheese. For dessert, one could indulge in Holly Ridge S’mores Squares, an item that didn’t truly taste like a s’more, but was warm and weird and tasty all the same. Funnel cakes made their presence known, as did churros. And all of these disparate items co-existed under a giant rotating banner listing all the familiar brands that fall under the J&J Snack Foods umbrella: ICEE, Super Pretzel, Minute Maid, Cinnabon. They even make their own dog treats called Dogsters Healthy Treats. Veterinarian recommended! It was a real snacker’s paradise, one that is enhanced and contextualized after visiting the J&J website, with its waving pixilated American flag and CEO’s patriotic fervor.
After reaching snack nirvana with J&J there was really nothing that could impress me. I ran into more boneless wings, somebattered mozzarella sticks, French fries and some chocolate mousse. Nothing tasted good anymore and I wasn’t able to form actual English words. After a while, even the most masterful eater gets tired of ingesting and wants to go to back to the $14 parking lot to commit suicide in their car. With a stomach dangerously full of foods of wildly different qualities, ingredients, and origins, I left the NRA show knowing that I still didn’t see and eat everything I could have. I was okay with this, knowing the NRA show would be back next year. Like a Stone Age hunter of sorts, I dragged my bag containing Nutella, brownies, mints, wet naps, hand sanitizer, unfortunately named chips (Food Should Taste Good Cheddar Crisps), cookies, and hot sauce back to my village (apartment). The next morning I made a promise to myself that I’d never eat food ever again, a promise that I make every morning. A promise that I broke that particular morning as soon I found my Sconesant at the bottom of one of the 38 tote bags I amassed over the course of the previous day.
Hot Snacks! at the National Restaurant Association Show Photo Gallery