CHICAGO— Almost every year since 1988, I have made a late-May journey up here to attend the National Restaurant Association’s annual trade show. It is a massive gathering that brings together every component of the food-service industry under one roof. It’s a yearly kid-in-a-candy-shop moment. McCormick Place on the shore of Lake Michigan is the candy shop. You already know the identity of the kid.
After almost 40 years in this business, I am still in awe when I walk through the doors of this massive trade show. In the 1980s, while studying the hotel and restaurant business in college, I was starved for information on restaurants. There was obviously no internet, and so I spent hours in the library reading all of the restaurant trade magazines from cover to cover. I dreamed about opening restaurants, and one day attending the restaurant show in Chicago.
After opening our first restaurant in 1987, I started attending the show as often as my schedule, and finances, would allow. It was one of the best moves I ever made. New technology, fresh ideas, and industry innovations are always on display. For someone like me who lives, eats, sleeps, and breathes restaurants, it’s my super bowl.
I have a lot of professional job titles— chef, author, columnist, tour guide, and so on. But the oldest, nearest, and dearest job title is restaurateur. Above all else, I am a restaurateur. It is what I have obsessed about since I got my first job in a sandwich shop in 1981. I love everything about the restaurant business. Restaurants are my hobby. I schedule vacations around visiting restaurants. That’s why this week in May is so important to me. These are the days I re-charge my restaurant batteries.
Attending the restaurant show keeps me in touch with what is going on in the industry, but completing my restaurant visit to-do list in this city is almost as important. To my thinking, Chicago is the nation’s number three restaurant city behind New York and New Orleans. It’s one third the size, but more accessible than New York, and now that there is a direct flight out of my hometown airport, I might be making the trek up here more often.
Though my annual trip to this city feels a little different this year. There are a couple of extra kids in the candy shop. This year I am up here with my wife and two kids. This year I’m not hitting all of the new spots but taking the family to some of my old favorites. Our company’s chief operations officer, Dusty Frierson, is up here checking out all of the new openings.
I am introducing my kids to the men I consider the restaurant gods of Chicago— Paul Kahn, Brendan Sodikoff, and Richard Melman. These are the men whose concepts I have admired most in the past 30 years. My kids have heard me talk about these men and their restaurants for years. Now they’re seeing why I have admired them so much.
Also, since we have a breakfast concept and a donut shop opening in the next few weeks, I am eating at least two breakfasts every morning, and visiting a couple of donut shops every day. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to chew it. Chicago is a great breakfast city.
The research and development is fun and informative, but one of the biggest treats has been taking my soon-to-be 17-year old son to the restaurant show. In the early days, when I was just getting started, my then-girlfriend— and current wife— would accompany me. My family has grown up with my restaurant obsession. They have joined me on all of the food treks across the world. Today, I am introducing another side of this business to my son. That has been a true treat.
We have two more days, and dozens of more restaurants to visit. I am feeling very grateful that I am at a stage in my life where I can share the love and passion I have for the restaurant business with my son and daughter. Good stuff, that.