Perhaps unsurprisingly for a conference serving businesses built on hospitality, the prevailing theme of the 2014 NRA Show was that the success of the restaurant industry is all about people.

Thousands of suppliers and tens of thousands of operators convened to see the latest innovations serving the industry and to hear the best practices of their fellow executives, entrepreneurs and chefs.

In the speeches honoring menu development teams at the MenuMasters Award celebration or educational sessions at the conference, topics often came back to how restaurants can better engage with consumers, recruit and train the best staff, and advance their businesses by collaborating with each other.

Sometimes even a more adversarial relationship can move restaurant companies forward, as leaders from Yum! Brands Inc. and McDonald’s Corp. said during a “State of Nutrition” panel, moderated by NRA chief executive Dawn Sweeney and featuring Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Panelist Jonathan Blum, Yum’s chief public affairs and global nutrition officer, noted that the industry “has come a long way” in improving the nutrition of its food offerings and giving consumers more choice, as well as becoming more transparent with consumers, and he thanked Jacobson for playing a role in that evolution.

Steve Hilton, McDonald’s vice president of global government and public affairs, broke the news during the panel that the chain had made another more healthful change to its Happy Meals, offering yogurt as an option, which he also characterized as a step in the process catalyzed in part by Jacobson, who sued McDonald’s in 2010.

Much more camaraderie was apparent at the launch party of the Global Culinary Innovators Association, an offshoot of the International Corporate Chefs Association that will promote networking and idea sharing among research and development chefs at small and emerging companies.

In his keynote speech, Earvin “Magic” Johnson told NRA Show attendees that the important part of engaging with customers is to clearly understand their needs.

“Everything I do is about the customer,” Johnson said. “It’s never about me; it’s always about my customer. … You’ve got to over-deliver to your customer. If you over-deliver, you’re going to get the attention you’re looking for.”

Many operators attending or speaking at the show put a significant amount of focus on engaging their internal customers: employees. At a panel for three chief executives who had appeared on the “Undercover Boss” television program in the past year, all three agreed that their time in disguise at the unit level showed them the importance of building a company culture and in finding their crucial insights from front-line staff and managers.

“We are innovating at 100 miles an hour right now, and the only way you do that is by drawing the best ideas from your operators,” Anthony Wedo, chief executive of Ovation Brands Inc., said during the panel.

David Laborde, director of product development for Houston-based Salata, said on the NRA Show floor that he was looking for the kind of front- and back-of-the-house equipment that would help his chain grow through better staffing and training.

“The biggest challenges for us are personnel: staffing and training,” he said. “What we’ve found recently is that we can build a store faster than we can train a manager to run it. We need to do that successfully to make sure the brand can keep up.”

Human resources executives said that staffing pressure would likely grow as unemployment rates trend downward, driving their interest in labor management technology at the conference.

The 96th annual National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show will return to Chicago’s McCormick Place next year, from May 16-19, 2015.

Contact Mark Brandau at mark.brandau@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @Mark_from_NRN