Pop-ups, Food Trucks, iPads and Alchoholic Chocolate Milk the Hot Trends at NRA Show

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Every year, chefs, restaurant owners and vendors take a week off, dust off the old expense accounts and meet in one of America's larger cities for a few days of snacking, drinking and pretending to be interested in a 3000W blender for a chance to win an iPad or stare down a scantily clad booth babe's cleavage.

The 2011 National Restaurant Association Show at the McCormick Plaza convention center in Chicago has just begun and here are a few impressions for you guys at home.

Weird: Adult Chocolate Milk, a 40 proof version of the stuff childhood memories are made from. Ideal for a hair-of-the-dog morning cereal, I can tell you this much.

Coming: An iPad in every restaurant. If the dozen or so vendors are to be believed, traditional menus are for suckers and greasy spoons, wine and food menus on iPads are the future. Orders are relayed to the ticker in the back, sommeliers appear in small videos alongside every wine, and waitstaff get to wipe down the screens after greasy fingers scrolled for dessert or they drive to the nearest Apple store to buy new "menus" after the clumsy host dropped a stack again.

Food trucks and pop-up restaurants: Leave it to the industry to turn a once lovable and frugal trend for chef/owners lacking the funds to buy or lease a space into the expensive new hotness. Modern food trucks cost millions, come with computers to live-tweet locations and update the Facebook fan page and feature a live link to suppliers while updating inventory via built in RFID chips in food crates. Run out of chicken and your friendly poultry purveyor gets a fax with a new order and the truck's current location.

Fancy a pop-up for a week? A number of "turnkey" solutions will be available later this year. Decide on a name and cuisine, click a button or two, and 48 hours later a truckload of printed signage, tables, chairs, ordering systems and assembly instructions could be yours while back at headquarters a team of lawyers and public relations personnel works on permits and TV and radio appearances and builds a website.

Of course unless landlords and local laws and regulations change in our fair city, we won't see many of those fancy trucks or pop-ups in our neighborhoods.

This year's show definitely feels more energetic than the past few, maybe a sign of recovering economies and better times to come. The show floor is huge (my calves hurt from walking and I am certainly no stranger to being on my feet all day) and SWAG is back.

Monday and Tuesday will be for talks and competitions, maybe I even get to ask General Colin Powell if he thought he was keynoting that other NRA.

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