AI, Robots, and EWA – The State of Restaurants at NRA 2024.

By Lauren Bocage|Jun 5, 2024|8:34 am CDT

The National Restaurant Show is the Superbowl for the restaurant industry. For four days, 2,240 exhibitors and 58,000 attendees from 124 countries gather in Chicago for the latest in the industry.

2024 was my third year attending as an exhibitor and my first time as a member of Fourth. With a fresh set of eyes in the tech industry, a 4-day diet of soft pretzels, and a suitcase stuffed with swag. Here are my top takeaways as a product marketer.

two fourth employees at the national restaurant association show

1. AI appetites continue to grow

AI and technology adoption in the industry has grown significantly compared to 2023. Last year, there was lots of hesitancy about keeping the industry “human” but the mass adoption of mainstream AI tools that assist everyday life, like ChatGPT, has caused a shift. No longer an abstract concept, operators understand and see the value in the industry, with tools like automated phone answering, marketing support, and forecasting. Restaurants are hungry for more AI to aid their operational efficiency and improve the guest experience.

2. Robots are ready to rock

Robotics were the talk of the show. Robots made ice coffees, sushi, ramen, French fries, and served treats on the show floor. Attendees were impressed by their autonomy and the opportunity to bring them into their business. Some prospective buyers I spoke to, including a company that operates dining halls for large college campuses, had an interesting insight. They expressed reservations if the current capacity compared to the required maintenance was worth the investment. Concluding that they would first need to see the results of other successful deployments of the technology to more aggressively consider implementation. A great reminder to companies at the forefront of this space that social proof is critical.

3. EWA offerings abound, but misconceptions remain

On-demand pay is the latest trend for employee attraction, retention, and engagement for the restaurant industry and it was prevalent at the show. Major players and smaller companies showed off their version of earned wage access. But buyers beware, some providers were concerningly behind on what earned wage access is, either calling it a loan or providing a workaround for employers to run payroll daily – YIKES.

HINT: Earned wage access is not a loan and it’s not an employer running payroll daily.

I know as a part of product marketing team I am biased, but as a service industry veteran, I don’t like the idea of people to be taken advantage of or intentionally misled. This failure to keep up with the latest research and failure to align on a baseline definition of earned wage access is dangerous.

Fuego aside, earned wage access is an awesome benefit for an industry where so many live paycheck to paycheck. I urge these inaccurate providers to step it up because they are creating unnecessary confusion and misconceptions about earned wage access, which only hinders its larger adoption in the service industry.

For more clarity on how to protect your team for loan providers posing as earned wage access, check out this guide: earned wage access v. payday loan

4. Informational Trumped Experiential

Many exhibitor’s booths led with their services first and brand second, especially in the tech-pavilion where the all-in-one approach dominated. But in a crowded market, especially for abstract products, many exhibitors just blended the two together for an audience driven by experience. As a result, overwhelmed attendees arrived at the booth asking, “so what do you do?”

DoorDash’s Chicago-style diner and Tripleseat’s Spaceship broke through the noise as experiential spaces. But not all brands have the luxury to put services and brand on the backburner. So, graphic and minimalist expos like Square and Tap to Order proved successful tactics to disrupt an overwhelming show floor and draw in attendees.

5. Plant-based flipped the script

Last year, plant-based products were front and center – I can still taste those ‘chxkn’ tenders with BBQ sauce that got me through NRA 2023. But in 2024, the plant-based companies were relegated to the back of the South Building. Yes, a bigger and more trafficked section but all the way in the back, with less organic traffic and a trek for those who were curious.

But, Impossible Foods and Oatly threw down the gauntlet and stood out in the plant-based section by adopting the visual language of meat and dairy purveyors. Both abandoned the traditional visuals of plant-based branding, “the greens, the plants, the better for you vibe” and instead went for classic Americana diner feel, slinging sliders, meatballs, and soft-serve. Suggesting that these big plant-based players are not just an alternative but the real deal.

6. Swag Report: Stress relievers were the main squeeze

Leaning on the health and wellness trend, stress balls in all food shapes and sizes stole the show. Despite many exhibitors having their version, attendees were excited to collect them all, including Fourth’s robot. An important reminder for swag development that most attendees just want something to bring back for their loved ones.

Some other honorable mentions for swag:
DoorDash’s: “Deep Dish is for only Tourists” T-shirt
Heinz personalized Ketchup bottles
Margin Edge – reminder stickers that speak to the restaurant industry, personal favorite: “Vermouth Goes in the Fridge”

7. 2025 Prediction: Video screens will be all the rage

Fourth’s double-sided screen wall, 3 projections per side as the largest at the show. The large, animated text with performance metrics and quotes drew traffic and stopped attendees in their tracks to read. Competitors were spotted taking pictures, so I expected to see large video displays in 2025 expos.

The Fourth team plans to bring it with something new. Can’t wait to see what’s in store for next year.