**FRIDAY 15 MAY 1998
Baby, What You Want Me To Do?
Destination Chicago: home of Northern Blues music, mysterious winds and some of America's most innovative restaurants. Oh, and the world's largest catering exhibition too.
Arrive O'Hare Airport. There isn't an airport in the USA, it seems, where the staff don't act surprised when a planeload of foreigners arrives at the international terminal. Huh? Where did they all come from? Queues of "aliens" build up at Immigration Control. But at least the officers on duty have heard of the restaurant show and wish us a pleasant trip. It leaves me wondering: how many Americans arriving at Heathrow in February were told to enjoy Hotelympia?
Check in at the Chicago Hilton and Towers hotel. It has recently been renovated at a cost of $185m (£113m), and boasts 1,543 rooms - all occupied for the duration of the show.
**SATURDAY 16 MAY 1998
And so to McCormick Place for preview day of the 79th National Restaurant Association Restaurant Hotel-Motel Show (or NRA, for short). I take a first look, and one word comes to mind: BIG.
McCormick is a purpose-built exhibition centre that includes two great halls with, in some areas, up to five levels. Most of the NRA displays, however, are spread across a single floor of 1.3 million square feet. There are nearly 2,000 exhibitors from 16 countries, including six companies from the UK. The organisers expect 104,000 visitors over five days.
The range of products on display is enormous, varying from fresh doughnuts to smokeless ashtrays, from washing up machines to paper cups (see page 73). Every angle of the food and equipment business is covered. There's an abundance of attractions, and if you get tired of static displays, there are seminars, ice-carving contests, culinary competitions and a constant pantomime of practical demonstrations to distract your weary gaze.
It's aimed mostly at the North American market. So what's the attraction for the UK visitor? Chris Enticknap of Takeabreak Motorway Services says the lure is exactly that Americana. "I want to see new products and innovations not normally available in the UK," he says. Ian Neill, chief executive of London's Wagamama restaurant, says he expects to get tired feet. He won't be disappointed.
Grant Patterson, export sales manager of UK-based exhibitor Churchill Hotelware, says this is his company's second year at the show. "We are breaking into the US market, but a 32% import tax on foreign goods doesn't make it easy."
David Roger, international sales and marketing director of the Dudson Group, a UK fine china manufacturer, agrees, but stresses that the potential $300m-a-year (£186m) market for tableware in the USA can't be ignored. "We're aiming for the top third of that," he says.
Although the NRA exhibition stands compare favourably with what you might expect at a UK show, there appears to be more room for smaller entrepreneurs. They are there in force, with their overflowing enthusiasm. Overflowing or overpowering? Sometimes it seems too much, but, as consultant Naomi Arnold says:"A little bit of that energy would go a long way in the UK."
Nearly a full day at the show results in exhibition fatigue, so we take a break in the evening and go to a "ball game", watching the Chicago White Sox baseballers lose 11-3 to Oakland.
**SUNDAY 17 MAY 1998
**Little Red Roaster
Back to the show for a second look, but the ice-carving competition proves more interesting than most of the products on display. We are amazed by the deceptive skill of the ice sculptors, who, dressed like lumberjacks and using chain saws, create dangerous designs and exquisite statues of dolphins and dragons. But I wonder - should breakages really be repaired with WD-40 lubricant?
Dinner in the Lettuce Entertain You restaurant, Wildfire. Here, the food, much of it smoke-cured, is prepared on great oak burning grills. The cooking area is open to the public and provides an entertaining spectacle. The venue seats more than 200 customers and has a frontier image, with stacks of chopped wood lining the walls. "Great theatre," says Tony Hughes, operations director of the UK's Bass Taverns.
Bob Loeschorn, vice-president of Wildfire, tells me the American public likes to eat early in the evening, and customers start arriving by 4.30pm, particularly in winter. "This means that we can turn the tables up to three times a night," he says.
It's casual dining, but average spend can be as high as $40 (£24) a head, and I go away trying to work out - unsuccessfully - the annual turnover. Two house cocktails don't help my calculations.
It's late evening, but Chicago's club scene is just beginning to wake up. The city has a history of blues and jazz music, and this is kept alive by an abundance of small to medium-sized clubs that stay open until the early hours, serving an intoxicating mixture of rhythm and beer.
Food is usually available, often described as "home style", which means ribs, chicken wings, catfish and burgers. Cajun cuisine is also on many menus. These are not fine-dining venues, however, and the food always takes second place to the music.
**MONDAY 18 MAY 1998
**Sittin' On Top of the World
Early morning visit to the smaller (120-seat) outlet of a two-restaurant chain known as Big Bowl, another Lettuce concept. Two more sites are due to open in the city later this year.
The food is based on Chinese-Japanese-Vietnamese cuisine, with pick-and-choose soups, salads, stir-fries and four types of noodle on offer. No dish is priced above $9.95 (£6.05). Manager Kevin Brown says the menu appeals to customers seeking "low-fat, healthy food".
Decorated in a westernised oriental style, with messages on the walls urging customers to "Speak frankly", "Slurp freely" and "Drink tea", the restaurant serves 250 covers a day. However, half the outlet's trade comprises off-site deliveries, using a combination of in-house drivers and a company called Room Service. A printout of the customer database every 60 days allows the restaurant to chase lapsed clients by means of a mail shot.
On to the Water Tower shopping centre next, to experience Food Life, a series of help-yourself stalls serving food ranging from traditional pasta dishes to all-vegetarian organic fare, from noodles and stir-fry to sweets and juices.
Now more than four years old, the idea of the hall is for customers to pick up a "credit card" and select their own meals, which are registered on the card and paid for on exit. Manageress Maria Frias says the concept "gives people what they want, as quickly as they want it". The hall serves up to 3,000 customers a day.
But Helen Flanders, now Allders department stores group foodservice controller, is not impressed by the claimed novelty. "I suggested this concept years ago when I worked at Selfridges," she says.
And then for lunch at Maggiano's Little Italy. This restaurant, which serves large portions of Italian and Greek food, is styled in the image of Chicago's gangster past. Vice-president Yorgus Koutsogiorgas denies the restaurant is themed, however. "Themes are like bubbles - they burst," he says. "How many times can you take your family to see a plastic crocodile? What we do here is serve food at a fair price, and customers come back."
The original outlet first opened in 1991, essentially as a dining area behind a small bakery serving six types of bread. As the concept grew, Brinker International became involved and provided expansion capital. The chain is now 10-strong nationwide. It's an impressive operation, with great food and a commendable emphasis on staff training.
**TUESDAY 19 MAY 1998
**Bring It On Home
The last day begins with breakfast at the Hyatt Regency with industry analyst Malcolm Knapp. We discuss the economic climate for restaurateurs in the USA and he draws my attention to the latest Knapp-Track report in Nation's Restaurant News.
"The current economic environment is about as good as it gets," he says. "If your restaurants are not making money in this environment, then it's time to reconcept, get a new concept, sell or shut down."
Well, you can't get more bullish than that. I think about what Knapp has said on the flight home and conclude that his advice applies equally to the UK at the moment - at least in London.
I just wonder - what is the difference between reconcepting and getting a new concept? Baffles me. But then I don't live in Chicago.