May 29, 2024

Futuristic Vibes at the #2024RestaurantShow

Technology had a huge presence at the 2024 National Restaurant Show in Chicago, from May 18 – 21. AI, robotic solutions, autonomous ordering, restaurant management innovations, back-of-house innovations, and new sustainability offerings were everywhere across the enormous conference halls. 

Turnout for all four days broke new records: 

  • 58,000+ total foodservice professionals
  • 6% increase in total attendance YoY
  • 15% international attendees representing 123 countries
  • 22% increase in international attendance YoY

SoundHound AI’s booth featured a throwback neon-lit, Dynamic Drive-Thru sign that was instantly visible and drew thousands of attendees to the SoundHound booth.   

The booth featured demos of our newest restaurant product offerings and ongoing discussions with restaurant owners, franchise owners, QSR leadership, partners, and more.

Ben Bellettini, Vice President of Sales, Restaurants at SoundHound, noted that voice AI was reaching a tipping point, as he saw more excitement than he’s ever seen before. 

“There was an overwhelming magnetism to our technology and innovation. Folks were consistently surprised by the lack of latency and overall accuracy after engaging with our demo environments. With exceptional demand, partners and brands appear ever eager to integrate and scale SoundHound’s market leading AI solutions.”

Employee Assist and Smart Answering were two of the newest products we featured at NRA.

“There was an overwhelming magnetism to our technology and innovation. Folks were consistently surprised by the lack of latency and overall accuracy after engaging with our demo environments.”

Ben Bellettini, Vice President of Sales, Restaurants at SoundHound

SayHiToAI Campaign

The innovative  “SayhitoAI” campaign was incredibly popular, with our ai-themed t-shirts selling out within hours. 

Amid all the activity, we noted these key trends:

  • Highly visual, digitized menu boards, heralding the slow phaseout of static or paper menu boards. 
  • AI and automation everywhere, but diminished interest in robotics. 
  • Restaurant management software, especially data-driven platforms that help with back-of-house and operations management.
  • Sustainability, with eco-friendly products from low-environmental-impact cooking oil to compostable, recyclable, PFAS-free, or aqueous coating packaging.

Highly visual, digitized menu boards 

Every type of display was on-hand in Chicago, and it’s clear that static or paper menu boards are quickly becoming obsolete. Now, it’s all about high quality, high definition, heavily branded, and up-dateable menus.

This aligned with another key show theme of sustainability and how digital menus help reduce paper waste by allowing for real-time updates, reducing the need for reprints. 

According to a 2024 survey by the Green Restaurant Association, “70% of restaurants now use digital menus, up from 50% in 2023.”

AI and automation everywhere

AI and automation were ever-present at the show, but according to journalist Nancy Luna, voice AI was a standout, as she noted in her Automation News article,  Voice AI Steals the Spotlight at National Restaurant Association Show.

“As I wandered through the technology-packed aisles of the National Restaurant Association food show last weekend, one standout star stole the spotlight among hundreds of vendors: sleek display screens sporting AI-powered voice ordering.”

She also mentioned SoundHound’s recent merger with SYNQ3 Restaurant Solutions, and how the  “deal made SoundHound AI one of the country’s leading providers of voice AI for restaurants.”  

At the SoundHound AI booth we featured demos and videos of our latest line of restaurant products including Dynamic Drive-Thru, Smart Ordering, Employee Assist and Smart Answering.

Robots faced a tougher crowd

One thing that we noted, however, was less interest in robotics. Even though burger-flipping robotic arms, automated sushi makers, and hamburger-serving robots were on display, the excitement level was elsewhere.

“Last year, everyone was talking about robots. This year, they’re all talking about AI,” noted Austin Prosser, a senior manager at Toast.

Stephen Worley, operations manager for Aniai, which was displaying its robotic burger grill, said in a Restaurant Hospitality article,  “Robotics is kind of nerve-wracking to the industry. It’s not that the Alpha Grill isn’t cutting edge. Rather, it’s that, ‘operators are hesitant to turn over their kitchens to a bot,” he said. 

Robots didn’t draw as much attention at this year’s show.

Rising demand for restaurant management software

Software continues to evolve to help restaurants take advantage of new AI and automation capabilities. And management software was a popular display at the show. Here’s a brief list of vendors at NRA:  

  1. Capture AI by Restaurant365 – Uses AI to extract data from invoices with speed and precision for accounts payable automation.
  2. Toast Marketing Suite – Includes an AI tool that can create promotional emails and marketing content for restaurants using simple prompts.
  3. Fourth AI-Powered Labor Management – Integrates AI into scheduling and inventory systems to forecast labor needs and optimize job postings.

Growing interest in sustainability

Sustainability was a much bigger part of the spotlight this year as evidenced by the volume of exhibitors touting eco-friendly products. 

First-time visitor, Taein E&D, a foodservice technology and equipment company based in South Korea, showcased its ultrasonic deep fryer, which uses ultrasonic waves (an inaudible sound/vibration) to deep fry food—an option that both uses less power (5 kilowatts) and less oil than a traditional fryer.  

Carbon footprint tracing

Another first timer to the show, Nature’s Source,  showcased its new carbon footprint tracing technology that allows operator customers to monitor their packaging carbon footprint in real time, and allow them to make swaps (using Nature’s Source products or others) to packaging that will be less harsh on the environment. 

Other packaging companies were promoting features like compostable, recyclable, PFAS-free, or aqueous coating. These products have become more urgent with the huge increase in delivery and takeout traffic.

Other offerings at the show included:

  • Zero Acre Farms’ low environmental impact cooking oil
  • Magnesol’s frying oil management solution
  • True Ice by True Manufacturing with energy-efficient ice production

Technology comes of age

This is the year that NRA fully embraced technology. More and more restaurants are using technical products and solutions to overcome today’s obstacles and are excited about what’s coming tomorrow. The 2024 show marked a key turning point in this journey.

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