NRA Show 2014 delivers the Magic

The NRA Show 2014 in Chicago was a roaring success. And when your keynote speaker is NBA legend and business mogul Magic Johnson, a big crowd is guaranteed, reports Michael Jones

The NRA Show, or to give it it’s full title, The annual National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show, is billed by organisers as “the largest single gathering of restaurant, foodservice, and lodging professionals”. Held between 17-20 May at Chicago’s McCormick Place, the 2014 show was certainly impressive on many levels. Boasting positive growth in both attendee and exhibitor numbers for the third year in a row, just shy of 64,000 visitors (a total growth of 10.5% since 2011) and 1,800 suppliers exhibited this year at the show. Registrants hailed from all 50 US states and over 100 countries worldwide, while on the exhibitor side, total square footage grew by 5.7% to 612,170 sq ft.

“Our industry is poised for another year of growth, and operators came out in full force to find the products, services, information and contacts that will help them capitalize on increased consumer spending in the next year.” said Sam Facchini, 2014 NRA Convention Chair and co-founder/co-owner of Metro Pizza. “The energy and excitement at this year’s NRA Show could be strongly felt at every venue and reflected the ongoing optimism among restaurant and hospitality professionals.”

Across a packed conference agenda the most pertinent issues in the foodservice industry were addressed and dissected throughout the show, including sessions on entrepreneurship, technology, social responsibility, sustainability, health and nutrition, menu development and special dietary needs.

Featured speaker sessions included a ‘State of our Industry’ address by Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association, a debate between Sweeney, Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, Groupon CEO Eric Lefkofsky, and Google head of industry for restaurants Jennifer Wesley, titled ‘The Future of the American Dream’. A preview of ‘Restaurateurs to Watch’ also featured famed chef and restaurateur Rick Bayless, Kevin Boehm, co-founder of Boca Restaurant Group, Kevin Brown, president and CEO of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, restaurateur Rohini Dey and restaurateur Nick Kokonas.

On the World Culinary Showcase stage top chefs Andrew Zimmern, Art Smith, David Burke, Duff Goldman, Ming Tsai, Claire Robinson and Graham Elliot wowed the crowds with live cooking demonstrations. This writer had the distinct pleasure of witnessing one of the event’s ‘Near-Chef Experience’ up close with Robert Irvine (TV chef and owner of Robert Irvine’s Nosh restaurant in South Carolina) who cooked a sumptuous pan-fried salmon on black rice and kept the assembled hundreds amused throughout with tales from his Dinner: Impossible and Restaurant: Impossible TV shows.

But the keynote address from Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson, was the undoubted highlight of the show for most attendees. Johnson, discussing the importance of customer understanding and engagement, unsurprisingly drew huge crowds and it’s not hard to understand why. His list of accolades and both sporting and business achievements are hard to match. NBA legend, two-time Hall of Famer, entrepreneur, philanthropist and motivational speaker, Johnson’s business acumen has now propelled his company Magic Johnson Enterprises (MJE) to the status of #1 urban brand in America.

As Chairman and CEO of MJE, Johnson prides himself on providing “high quality products and services that focus primarily on ethnically diverse and underserved urban communities through strategic alliances, investments, consulting and endorsements”. MJE is comprised of multiple business entities and partnerships that include amongst others, specifically in the foodservice sector, SodexoMAGIC, Magic Airport Holdings and T.G.I.F. Friday’s Restaurants.

Johnson is though perhaps most renowned in the industry for the milestones of striking the first Pepsi distributorship deal in the DC area and his unprecedented Starbucks partnership for urban American communities.

The move was a hugely successful one for both Starbucks and Johnson and one that he attributed to his innate understanding of “the urban consumer”. When he first met with Starbucks founder and CEO Howard Schultz he was told that it was unlikely the franchises would ever really take off because “black people don’t drink coffee”.  Johnson conversely, saw a substantial business opportunity and made it his mission to make each Starbucks a “hub of community” in urban America, opening 125 Starbucks franchises over a six-year period.

In 2010, Johnson divested his Starbucks and Los Angeles Lakers shares for in excess of $100 million dollars but still continues to support Starbucks with their community development initiatives.

For Johnson, the key to success in the restaurant world is simple. It’s about engendering “a winning mindset and attitude” among your team. “Always know your customer. Speak to them every day. Drive great customer service. Be consistent,” he said. He also advocated consistently “reinvesting in your business” as well as purchasing the “latest, quickest and best technology for great customer service”.

“Be the best at what you’re doing 24/7,” said Johnson. “Train your staff and keep training them. Be best in class and strive for excellence.”

Brand “is everything” in foodservice said Johnson. “Protect it at all costs. Do not dilute the brand. And do not take on a contract that you can’t deliver.”

Michael Jones

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