May is my favorite time of year in Chicago. Not only is it spring — with a hint of summer — in one of my favorite cities, but it’s also the undisputed center of restaurant industry activity, at least for about 10 days.

Love it or hate it, the National Restaurant Association Show brings together 60,000 restaurateurs, franchisees, suppliers, vendors and all points in between to meet, greet and, of course, eat. While the show floor at McCormick Place is the epicenter of activity, there are various events, conferences and celebrations surrounding the show that are proving to be just as important (and less harsh on those braving high heels all day).

I’ve been lucky enough for the past three years to attend the NRA Supply Chain Management Executive Study Group, which ahead of the NRA Show holds a spring conference that brings together top supply chain and purchasing executives to discuss latest trends and emerging issues. It’s secretly where I learn more about the industry than nearly anywhere else, as supply chain operations touch, well, everything: ingredient sourcing and menu development, marketing and pricing, food safety and distribution, and customer interaction with the items restaurants serve.

The general theme from that event was the slow and steady move of the supply chain function from defensive — reactionary to commodity pricing, and at the whim of research and development — to offensive — proactively driving purchasing strategies, supplier relationships, menu development and operational efficiencies. Supply chain has definitely moved to the c-suite.

That same theme — the move from defense to offense — can be seen with restaurant equipment. What was once necessity is now opportunity.

With the right equipment, additional dayparts can be tapped, menus can be expanded and cost-saving operational efficiencies can be built. Nation’s Restaurant News Southwest bureau chief Ron Ruggless scoured the NRA Show floor to explore new equipment trends and offerings, and the results are in a special report. You’ll find equipment getting smaller, sleeker and smarter.

The events around the NRA Show wouldn’t be complete without the MenuMasters award celebration, presented by NRN and sponsored by Ventura Foods. The evening at The Drake Hotel is the best restaurant ticket of the year, as menu innovation, chef creativity and a little bit of celebrity are thrown together to create an evening unlike any other. Where else can you eat the award-winning Wendy’s Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger along with quinoa cakes from the MenuMasters Hall of Fame inductees, the “Too Hot Tamales” Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger? (Hint: nowhere.)

You can find pictures of the event here. Think of it as the official kickoff to summer, after a lovely spring week in Chicago.

Contact Sarah E. Lockyer at sarah.lockyer@penton.com.
Follow her on Twitter: @slockyerNRN.