Home News Utility Show offers indie-focused restaurant industry show

Utility Show offers indie-focused restaurant industry show

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Thousands of restaurant owners, big-box franchisees and hospitality industry staffers head to Chicago each May to participate in the National Restaurant Association Show at McCormick Place. They flock to consume content such as celebrity chef demos on hot topics l such as plant-based cuisine and culinary cannabis, seminars on overcoming labor challenges and increasing profits, and exhibits on everything from the latest functional beverage machines and compostable packaging to robotic servers and cutting-edge food delivery systems.

This year, there was a new kid in town, The Utility Show, a “2-day celebration of everything hospitality” produced by Tilit, a hip restaurant uniform and gear company out of New York City.

After less than satisfactory experiences as NRA Show exhibitors, owners Jenny Goodman and Alex McCrery decided to throw an industry party during the NRA Show weekend last May, and invited some vendors, chefs and tattoo artists to join in. They wanted to “see what the appetite was for the industry to have something a little bit more progressive, a little bit more fun, a little bit more creative, and educational knowing that there’s so many amazing hospitality people in town already for this weekend,” said Goodman, who co-founded Tilit with her husband McCrery in 2012.

The pair sees their work in the industry as “an extension of the hospitality ecosystem,” Goodman said. They took the opportunity to collect like-minded vendors, big-name chefs and bartenders, and restaurateurs to create their own version of a trade show where their community can gather, discover resources for their business, network and have a great time.

“For us it’s about supporting … the entire ecosystem. It’s about providing engaging, educational, interesting content that will make people think about what’s happening in the industry, how they can do things better at their restaurant, to shine a light on exhibitors… who are really helpful to this ecosystem.”

Sarah Reina, 25, head of the bakery department at Chicago’s Starbucks Reserve Roastery, attended the mini version of the event last year and enjoyed the vendors and programming so much that she returned for the 2024 two-day launch at a warehouse event space in the Near West Side. She said the show provided her “with a sense of belonging to the industry,” in contrast with her job, which can sometimes feel isolated.

Attendees like Reina got free flash culinary tattoos from Great Lakes Tattoo, shopped for artisan tableware and work shoes, and drank Miller High Life, plus enjoyed a daily pastry chef showcase and chef pizza and hot dog throw-downs — all with generous samples.

Both days also offered thoughtfully curated conversations on issues that industry folks are talking about. During a May 19 panel titled “Advocating for an Equitable and Sustainable Industry,” curated by the Independent Restaurant Coalition, moderator Ashok Selvam of Eater Chicago covered hot topics such as service fees, the farm bill and child care. They answered questions from the audience about the farm bill, acknowledging the essential connections between farmers and restaurants, and discussed the enormous hurdles for industry folks accessing affordable child care, especially during nights and weekends.

Panelists also criticized the National Restaurant Show for only standing for the interests of chains and franchises.

“The NRA is not looking out for what I believe in,” said Dan Jacobs, Milwaukee chef and IRC board member (and current “Top Chef” contender). He applauded the Utility Show for creating community and being surrounded “by idealistic people who want to make the world better.”

The IRC, which formed during the pandemic, gives “a voice at the table for the indies,” said Tyler Akin, a Wilmington, Delaware, chef who is also a board member.

Creating community is particularly important in tough times, and while the 2024 NRA Show prominently featured robots and computerized systems that can replace workers, Utility emphasized the human side. “Automation is getting rid of humans,” said Erika Polmar, executive director of the IRC, “but humans are the reason we do things.”

A pitch competition May 20, judged by industry titans Kevin Boehm of Boka Restaurant Group and chef Tom Colicchio, among others, had three restaurant hopefuls competing for a $20,000 prize (furnished by Chase Ink). Their five-minute pitches were all colorful and interesting, but when the judges started firing difficult questions about their construction budgets and poking holes in their marketing strategies, the room got excitingly tense. The winner, Chaz Brown, plans to open a Trinidadian-inspired restaurant in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood.

A panel curated by the Southern Smoke Foundation, an organization founded by chef Chris Shepherd in 2015 that provides restaurant workers financial aid and mental health services, emphasized the importance of mental health awareness in the workplace.

Panelist Erick Williams, chef/owner of Chicago’s Virtue Restaurant, explained to a standing-room-only crowd of industry folks that better mental health leads to better employee retention and better profitability. “When your staff is less worried, their productivity is able to increase,” he said.

Erick Williams, chef and owner of the restaurant Virtue, from left, Chris Shepherd, founder of the Southern Smoke Foundation, Sarah Grueneberg, chef and owner of the restaurant Monteverde, and Dr. Danielle Baran have a panel discussion about mental health in the hospitality industry during The Utility Show, May 20, 2024. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune)
Erick Williams, chef and owner of the restaurant Virtue, from left, Chris Shepherd, founder of the Southern Smoke Foundation, Sarah Grueneberg, chef and owner of Monteverde, and Dr. Danielle Baran have a panel discussion about mental health in the hospitality industry during The Utility Show on May 20, 2024. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune)

Representatives from Southern Smoke explained how to get help for employees in need through their Behind You mental health program and their Emergency Relief Fund.

“I think that independent restaurants don’t always have the same sort of support like the larger restaurant groups do, if you’re comparing the people that attend NRA versus the people that attend Utility, and in many cases they need organizations like (us) to fill in some of those gaps,” Southern Smoke Executive Director Lindsey Brown said in an interview before the trade show. “We just want people to know that we’re here.”

Ultimately, the confluence of progressively minded restaurant folk felt vibrant, thought-provoking and interactive, with multiple opportunities to engage with dozens of top local and national chefs and restaurateurs. Attendees expressed their excitement for next year’s show and McCreary looks forward to expanding in 2025, with one critical caveat.

“It’s very important that as we grow we keep it curated and special and fun,” she said. “We don’t want to turn into the same giant show that we’re trying to improve.”

Lisa Futterman is a freelance writer.



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