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TRA Ribbon Cutting.jpg Photo courtesy of the Texas Restaurant Association
Texas Restaurant Association CEO Emily Williams Knight (center), members of the TRA board and other TRA members cut the ribbon to open up this year's TRA Show in Houston.

The big takeaway from the Texas Restaurant Association Show: Optimism

Texas has gained more residents in the past two years than any other state in the nation, which is driving some optimism among restaurant operators.

I just returned from my very first Texas Restaurant Association Show, this year in Houston, and what an experience! My event kicked off with the Texas Restaurant Awards and Lone Star Bash Sunday night, in which several industry winners were recognized. A moment that stood out to me was when Capwell “Cappy” Lawton, of Cappy’s Restaurant in San Antonio, was inducted into the Hall of Honor.

During his acceptance speech, he said, “You’ll never solve world peace at a conference table, but you will at a dining table.”

Perhaps this perspective pinpoints why most attendees I interacted with were buoyant about the future of the industry. Things seem to be normalizing a bit, consumers have proven their resiliency and, for Texas in particular, an influx of people has kept restaurants busier than most other markets in the country. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Texas gained an average of nearly 413,000 residents between 2020 and 2022, the largest gain in the nation.

“They need shelter, and they need food and we’ve got the food covered,” Texas Restaurant Association CEO Emily Williams Knight said during a fireside chat with Big Chicken CEO Josh Halpern.

Texas’ restaurant industry generated over $95 billion in sales from nearly 55,000 establishments in 2022, according to the National Restaurant Association. It is the second largest association in the country, behind California, and it is expected to continue unit and sales growth into 2024 at the very least, Williams Knight said.

For now, this year’s show attracted over 500 exhibitors and over 5,000 attendees. New was an expanded Ghost Kitchen and Virtual Restaurant Conference, which I unfortunately had to miss but which clearly generated a ton of interest judging by the crowd and follow up conversations. Exhibitors were heavy on the food and beverage vendor side, but there were also plenty of tech players showing off things like robot servers, cooking robots, automated beverage solutions, point-of-sale purveyors, and labor-focused apps.

There was also a Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits Pavilion AND a craft beverage pavilion, so attendees – including myself – had plenty of inspiration to keep the conversations going. I tried to do just that, and this is perhaps what stood out to me most about attending this show: operators were extremely accessible and more than willing to talk about their trials and triumphs. I’m not sure if this was Texas hospitality or that (aforementioned) buoyancy, but I had the opportunity to have valuable conversations with at least a dozen operators during my truncated visit to Houston. And those operators run a diverse roster of businesses: 34% of Texas establishments are full-service, while 16% are fast casual/QSR and 25% are “other,” like bars, hotels and catering companies. Most – 70% – are independent owners.

What I gathered from those conversations is that these operators are tired – most have been to hell and back in the past three years – but they’re optimistic that the worst is behind them and that there is a light at the end of this long, strange tunnel. I admit, the conversations made me buoyant as well.

“The restaurant industry is driven by passionate, hardworking people who rarely get the opportunity to stop, reflect, and celebrate together. I’m incredibly proud of the fact that the 2023 Texas Restaurant Show created that space for all restaurants in Texas and beyond — from single-unit operators to global brands. By coming together, we find new solutions to our challenges, celebrate the grit and excellence that has gotten us through difficult years, and inspire each other to create meaningful change,” Williams Knight said after the show. “Like our industry, the Texas Restaurant Show gets better every year. I’m already excited to welcome our whole restaurant community to San Antonio for the 2024 show.”

Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]

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