I was in Chicago. The Restaurant Show was in Chicago. I got a press pass and checked it out.
It's huge-- over 1800 exhibitors and some of them have really big exhibits. I believe it's the biggest restaurant trade show.
It's for the restaurant industry-- so exhibits ranged from bulk food, processed food, pots and pans and bio-degradable take out packaging to stoves, beer distillers, gelato, blenders, menu printers, billing software, waiting list buzzers, franchise consultants, basic grains and produce, did I mention beer distillers and gelato? I tried a dark pretzel beer served in pretzel cups and a lemon beer-- both delicious-- and I'm certain, non-organic.
I went with a few goals in mind-- to learn more about the state of organic and GMO food in the restaurant industry, to sample and savor some good food, to find some contacts for background and interviews. I had success on all fronts.
Regarding the idea of organic foods in restaurants, my search was not that encouraging. There were a few dozen, maybe even fifty or sixty or eighty companies offering organic food, non-GMO food. Not all, maybe only 60-70% offered ALL their products as organic. They'd say that more complex foods with multiple ingredients are harder to get to meet Organic criteria. I got the impression that regulations produce more organic, more safe food in Canada. One supplier of organic bulk food to restaurants told me that about half a percent of restaurants offer organic food options and that you can expect the best chance of finding organic quick take out food. That's also been my experience-- wraps and sandwiches that can be taken out.
There were between 50 and 100 booths that were offering one of or a combination of foods that were Organic, GMO free or gluten-free. There was a lot of free pizza sampling to indulge in.
I spoke to one farmer who had a booth that represented some 1600 organic farms in the Midwest. That's hopeful. One booth offered wild rice harvested by Native Americans in Minnesota-- now that seems like the most organic to me-- gathered rice-- downright indigenous.
One company offered a range of soft taco products. Some were organic. They offered some samples. They were delicious with veggie burgers, sliced tomato, lightly sauteed spinach or kale, a touch of hummus made in a blender and a bit of Siricha.
I asked at all the booths if their products were organic. That got me thinking that I should be doing it at every restaurant. At least let the proprietors know that there's a demand. And at supermarkets we should be telling the managers that we want organic-- and thanking them for what organic items they are offering. If we don't let them know they won't even realize there's a bigger demand. I spoke at the March Against Monsanto Rally in Chicago and said the same thing-- after the rally, always ask at restaurants and grocery stores whether the food is GMO, whether it is organic.
It was impressive and encouraging to learn that Bob's Red Mill company is employee owned-- that Bob, the 85 year old founder of the company gave the company to his employees.
It was nice to learn that many of the exhibitors who were showing food or giving away samples donated what food they had left to local food pantries and kitchens. More credit to them.
It's a massive, sprawling exhibit spread over multiple floors and halls of Chicago's McCormack Center. I didn't come close to seeing it all. I'd definitely do it again. Of course, this exhibit is not aimed at people like me. It's aimed at people in the restaurant business. As Americans continue to eat out more and more, it's important that the restaurant industry become more aware of the social and political issues as well as the raw bottom line. My kudos go to those small operations already doing so. And I hope the big chains start learning from operations like Chipotle, where they are doing a good job providing organic, non-GMO options-- and making a profit.