It is a pivotal time for the restaurant industry. Higher prices have driven customers away and operators are rushing to incorporate new technologies. It is serendipitous that in this crucial moment, the 2024 National Restaurant Association show arrived, and it was bigger than ever. The show covered over 700,000 square feet, 10% larger than the last show, and featured over 600 international exhibitors. There was a great deal of ground to cover the future to behold.

The NRA show is as much about the future of foodservice as the present, and there is nothing more cutting edge than robotics and artificial intelligence. Both had a strong presence on the show floor and will factor heavily into the restaurant of today and tomorrow. One of the big pieces of tech on display was kiosks, the self-service stations have gained popularity in fast-food restaurants to cut down on labor and improve efficiency. A change this year was that many tech companies were pushing all-in-one solutions for kiosks. The change gives operators the option to build a POS system from multiple sources or build the network from just one provider. Robotics are also proving simplicity for restaurants as operators look to automate all or some tasks in the kitchen. It wasn’t that long ago that pizza making robots stunned the crowd, and some of those machines seem simple now. Robots that can perform all types of culinary tasks were on display and we have seen companies that can construct entire restaurants run by robots. The automation provided by robotics is always fun to watch, yet operators have made it clear that the future of robotics is in directing them towards specific tasks that increase throughput instead of doing all tasks.

It would have been difficult to get through the show without hearing or seeing AI and it is clearly the tech focus for most restaurants. Many of the kiosks and robotics are being powered by AI and the technology is constantly improving. The ability for this software to learn and adapt at a rapid pace is part of the reason why so many vendors and operators are prioritizing this technology. Labor costs are still a major point of contention and AI has the ability to replace lost labor and reduce the strain on existing staff. Voice based AI technology was one of the standouts with booths that featured drive-thru ordering and even animated character avatars that could speak to customers. On the robotics side, there were machines that could cook burgers in under a minute and transport robots that could run food out of the kitchen.

For the non-AI elements of the show there was a focus on sustainability and cannabis in restaurants. Sustainability can be difficult to tackle when so many restaurants are struggling with profitability, yet many of the vendors there were focused on turning sustainability initiatives into a profit driver, such as offering surplus goods at a discount. With the growing prevalence of cannabis companies, it was only a matter of time before there was some serious crossover with the restaurant industry. The focus of cannabis at the show was infused alcoholic and non-alcoholic cocktails. There are some issues with state regulations when it comes to the wide adoption of these drinks, yet the show showed that experimentation is happening, and wider adoptions is expected in the future.

With a show this massive there was too much to see, and that is a good thing for a foodservice industry that needs innovations. Many operators are struggling right now and the technology on display could be the lifeline that brings these companies roaring back. With the focus on AI and other technology the vendors are clearly pushing efficiency and the ability to connect with the customer on a new level. Coincidentally, those are two things that every foodservice operator needs right now to make it a more profitable 2024. It will be interesting in the coming months and years to see some of this AI tech in the wild and what new uses operators devise for it.

If you exhibited this year and were unable to meet with all the attendees that walked the floor, connect with our team to learn how CSG can bridge the gap between tradeshow and sales.