My First Time Attending the National Restaurant Association Show

Convenience stores can learn a lot from the event
National Restaurant Association Show
Photograph by CSP Staff

I attended my first National Restaurant Association Show on Sunday. As I walked around the show floor with a colleague who has attended the show for many years, he told me how the show used to be irrelevant to many in the convenience channel. Now, however, it’s essential as c-stores cannot ignore foodservice.

He’s right—c-stores can’t afford to ignore foodservice anymore. Of course, some chains have known this for years, focusing on their famous pizzas, hoagies, slushies and more. But there’s always more to learn.

That’s where the National Restaurant Association Show steps in. The best way I can describe it for those of you in the c-store industry who haven’t been is it’s like a giant NACS Show, with less packaged snacks and more hot food, dispensed beverages and other equipment you’d use primarily in restaurants, such as plates, a cold fish display case, pasta makers and more.  

My feet were just as tired after a day of walking around McCormick Place in Chicago (I logged about 15,000 steps) as they normally are at the NACS Show, but my stomach was fuller. I ate and drank nearly everything I saw, from truffle pasta to mini gyros to grilled cheese to a nonalcohol beer and more. (No regrets, for the most part.)

I learned a lot, too. Here are a few takeaways that are relevant to c-stores:

  • Automation and ease are key to help with labor struggles: Labor is challenging to find and retain, at restaurants and at c-stores. The more operators can effectively use their time, the better. Bunn’s Premia coffee maker, for example, features an automated system that manages fill levels and freshness. Its semi-automated cleaning process allows operators to complete additional tasks, the company said. And Alto-Shaam’s Converge combination oven allows retailers to steam, bake, grill and air fry all at once, without sacrificing quality, the company said. When it comes to foodservice equipment, the trend was doing more with less.
  • Nonalcohol gains steam: I’ve been watching nonalcohol for the past five years since I’ve been with CSP, and even in that short time, it has grown quite a bit. While I didn’t count, I felt like I saw just as many nonalcohol drinks as alcohol ones when I walked around the beverage section of the show floor. I tried my first nonalcohol hazy IPA form Go Brewing, based out of Naperville, Illinois, and was happily pleased that it tasted like a traditional hazy beer. In a blind taste test, I might be fooled. Another notable nonalcohol option was White Claw 0%. It comes in Black Cherry and Mango Passionfruit flavors.
  • International flavors for the win: One flavor I kept running into was Yuzu.It dominated the Japan section, with Yuzu pepper paste, Yuzu-flavored juices and more. I liked the citrusy taste, and Ito-Noen’s Yuzu juice was a standout for me. S&B Food’s Crunchy Garlic with Chili Oil, which I had on top a piece of sushi, was also 10/10. I could see chili oil being used on many c-store foodservice items (noodles, egg sandwiches, marinades, etc.) as a way to add a little heat and umami to any dish.   

At this point, I’ve either convinced you to lean into foodservice, or made you really hungry. Either way, I hope this sparks an idea for your business. I know it sparked several ideas for me, and I look forward to attending in the coming years to see what else c-stores should be watching in the restaurant space.

For a video of my first time at the Show, including me swinging on a Kraft Mac & Cheese swing, visit our Instagram page @cspdailynews. On that page you’ll also find new product unboxings, At Your Convenience podcast clips, photos from our events and more. 

Hannah Hammond is the senior editor at CSP. Reach her at hannah.hammond@informa.com. 

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