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NRA to dish up 4 days of tastes, trends and hot foodie topics

Each May, tens of thousands of professionals from the food world descend on Chicago for the National Restaurant Association’s annual show, four days of educational sessions, inspiring speeches, new product demonstrations and plenty of tasty tidbits. This year’s event will feature basketball star turned entrepreneur Magic Johnson as the keynote speaker and a first-ever daylong summit on restaurants and financing.

As in years past, the four-day NRA Show 2014 will feature a packed schedule of educational sessions, culinary demonstrations and a trade show floor full of the latest kitchen gadgets and the next hot flavors. The show kicks off on Saturday, May 17, with food photographer Jeff Kauck teaching attendees how to take perfect food pictures for social media sites and ends Tuesday, May 20, with an afternoon book signing with Rocco Dispirito. In between, presenters will explore topics and trends in several areas including operations, marketing, sustainability,menu development, technology, and health and nutrition.

“Things that happen at this Show can change the course of individual operations and our industry, and every year the Show provides us with new things to learn and new ways to do business,” said show Chairman and Metro Pizza co-owner Sam Facchini, whose first visit to the show in the mid-1990s led the then-beginning restaurateur to a design firm that’s still a partner today.

In the operations arena, the show will include sessions on recruiting and training, wage and hour pitfalls, food safety, implementing new health care rules, along with sessions on leadership, culture and expansion opportunities.

Many of the marketing sessions will center on the two hot and often converging topics of social media and winning over the millennial generation, with sessions such as “When Marketing Met Technology” and “The Art and Science of Capturing the Opportunity within the Diverse Millennial Population.” Other educational sessions will focus on marketing to other target groups including moms and the under-18 crowd, which has been dubbed Gen C for “Generation Connected.”

Sessions on sustainability will cover local sourcing of ingredients and integrating local farming into restaurant operations, how-tos on reducing food waste and using authentic sustainability efforts to win points with millennials.

Planners got creative putting together the sessions on menu development, and the schedule includes a big helping of trends including a how-to on creating menus healthy enough to woo consumers back from their home kitchens. Other sessions in this section include a debate on food trends between Nancy Kruse and Bret Thorn, and a Gluten-Free IQ Quiz Show.

The technology track will include hands-on sessions such as the “In-store Experience,” where attendees will try out the latest in touch-screen systems for everything from tableside ordering to digital signage. Other tech sessions will focus on topics like how to secure your systems, make the most of big data and fend off patent trolls.

The show will feature several health and nutrition-related companies on the trade show floor, throughout the four-day event, including a host of companies that will display products designed to help create healthier kids fare, and an entire section of the floor dedicated to natural and organic products.

It wouldn’t be a gathering of food and beverage folks without plenty of eating, drinking and celebrating. Nighttime events this year include Destination: Celebration, a party to announce this year’s Operator Innovations Awards; Restaurants Rock, a let-your-hair-down event that will include the Star of the Bar Mixology Competition; and a Block Party where restaurants and bars around the Windy City will offer free drinks to NRA Show badge holders.

Are you heading to the show this year? What topics are of most interest to you? Tell us in the comments.