Return of a Giant: A Conversation with the Texas Restaurant Association about 2021 TRA Marketplace (Sponsored)

Each year, the Texas Restaurant Association (TRA) produces TRA Marketplace, the largest restaurant industry trade show and conference in the Southwestern United States. While the pandemic made the gathering a virtual affair in 2020, TRA Marketplace will return this summer as an in-person event, slated for July 10-12, 2021, in San Antonio. The 84th TRA Marketplace faces an unprecedented environment: Before COVID-19 hit, Texas’ restaurant industry generated $70-plus billion annually. In the first six weeks of the pandemic alone, the industry lost $7 billion. To date, the sector has lost 600,000 employees across the state, as well as 20% of restaurant volume. The industry is recovering, but the pandemic’s impact positions 2021 TRA Marketplace as the most consequential installment ever held––a reality organizers have taken seriously.


Q. When reflecting on the role of TRA Marketplace this year, Dr. Emily Williams Knight––President and CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association––said, "We are excited to host our 2021 TRA Marketplace in person, as we continue to envision the future of hospitality. Getting back together is a key component to our restaurant industry revival.”


Why is coming together even more important this year?

A. Most restaurants have experienced something very similar over the last year and a half, even though we’ve been apart from one another. As the pandemic hit, every restaurant had to change their business models. Most of them had to lay off staff. Restaurants all had to reassess priorities. We did that collectively––but alone. Zoom calls and Facebook groups only get us so far.


Everyone coming back together after the year and a half that we’ve had gives us all an opportunity to shed and share: Shed the trauma of the past year and share our experiences so we can better understand how we can move forward, and what we need as an industry from elected officials, vendor partners, and manufacturers to recover and become even stronger than we were before.


Q. TRA Marketplace is part trade show, part conference. How do you all make this combination work so well––and what’s unique about the way you do it?


A. We want everyone who comes to go home with as much useful information as possible, and TRA Marketplace’s layout reflects that. We have two education stages on the show floor, which allows people to wander through the halls to meet with vendors and then easily scoot over to an education session that interests them without leaving the building.


We’ve also added pre-conference education for the first time ever. Pre-conference education takes place on Saturday at the convention center in separate classrooms on the Riverwalk level. Much of it is really focused on content related to digital skills for restaurant managers. 


Q. Could you describe what a typical day could be like for an attendee?


A. We recommend downloading our TRA Marketplace App, which will make it easy to find vendors you want to see––and there is so much to see. You can encounter everything from a technology, loyalty, and security companies, to card-processing businesses, dish vendors, food to taste, and brand new products to try that have just been manufactured. All our distributor partners will be there as well, talking about the services they offer.


Q. You all have developed a reputation for offering truly valuable education at TRA Marketplace––and you have a strong track record when it comes to explaining and forecasting trends. A presentation several years ago on ghost kitchens comes to mind. Are there any presentations on trends this year that you’re especially excited about?


A. We’re going to have another session related to ghost kitchens because it’s still very prevalent, but we’re also really excited about our two keynote presentations. The first keynote is on Sunday, and it’s called Growth Under Pressure. There, we’re going to interview some brands that managed to grow during the pandemic including Wow Bao and Velvet Taco. Each of them has done a phenomenal job of opening locations, expanding menus, and even hiring during the pandemic. Wow Bao in particular has done an amazing job partnering with grocery stores, convenience stores, and other places around the country in ways we just wouldn't really have anticipated.


The second keynote on Monday addresses private equity and restaurants. Private equity is very interested in what’s going on in our space. Investors understand that there is going to be immense growth in restaurants in Q3 and Q4 of this year that will continue into 2022. We want restaurateurs to understand what a private equity company does. What do they look for when it comes to growth? What are expectations you should have as a business owner? What are some best practices when it comes to dealing with PE?


In this keynote, Savory Management of Mercato Partners' Savory Fund team will break down all-things PE for us. They’re bringing Zane and Brandon Hunt from Via 313, a Texas-launched and still Texas-based brand that is getting an infusion of capital and is poised to grow fast. Essentially, we’re going to hear from people right here in our own backyard who are navigating this well.


We’re also going to have a panel discussion about cross-cultural business affairs. There are a lot of businesses that are operating both on the state side and on the Mexico side. We want to bring people together to talk about what you need to know from a legal perspective, sourcing, and hiring. What does it take to operate in Mexico while continuing your business here in the states? These are all pressing questions that have a lot of our most forward-thinking members buzzing.


Q. Are there other presentations that address the industry’s post-pandemic revival that you’d like to point out?


A. There are two in particular we’d like to highlight. We will have one session all about employee retention. This is a huge issue for restaurants right now. In this session, we’ll talk to restaurateurs who have been able to retain their employees. Over the next year, great restaurant workers are going to be poached. Retaining your people must be one of your biggest priorities.


We’re also bringing back one of our favorite sessions that we’ve done once before called You’re Going to Need a Drink for This. It’s an hour and a half presentation that features three cocktail mixologists and three lawyers. The mixologist gets on stage and demonstrates how to make a great cocktail. We have batches of the cocktail pre-made so everyone gets a little taster glass of it. Then, a lawyer immediately follows the mixologist to explain a legal issue that you need to know about, concerning immigration, employment, new regulations –– a variety of the most pressing current topics.


We’ve found that presenting the information such a fun way just helps mitigate some of the stress surrounding these issues.


Q. What are some of the best moments from past years?


A. The best moments are when you get to see people with whom you’ve interacted via email, Zoom, and phone calls throughout the year. Seeing each other in person has always been special, and it’s assumed even deeper meaning now. At this point, so many of us are vaccinated that we might actually get to shake hands, hug, or have a drink indoors together! TRA Marketplace always feels like serendipity around every corner.


Q. Okay, now let’s talk PAC Lounge. What is this?


A. On the trade show floor, we have two lounges. There is the TRA Member Lounge, which is open to everyone. It’s a seated area where you can learn more about the Texas Restaurant Association and what we’re doing, and you can also meet the local executive directors for your region.


TRA is an advocacy organization. We provide a lot of member benefits and services to restaurants, but the tip of the spear is always advocacy. Our other lounge is the TRA’s Political Action Committee––or PAC––Lounge. In the PAC Lounge, elected officials come in to mingle and chat throughout the two days of TRA Marketplace. The space is just an incredible opportunity to hang out with the influential people––Democrats and Republicans, state and federal representatives––who make laws that affect your restaurant.


Q. Registration for TRA Marketplace is free for TRA members who are restaurateurs and only $50 for restaurateurs who aren’t members yet. That’s unique––especially for such a valuable experience. Why do you decide to charge either nothing or so little?


A. Our mission is for restaurants to succeed in Texas, whether you’re a member or not. We’d prefer you to be a member––and we work hard to create more value there. We know there are conferences out there that can cost between $500 and $1,000 per person. We’ve adopted an egalitarian approach. We want you to walk away having learned something, and for it not to have cost you that much. We know what it means to step away from your restaurant for two or three days, and we think that is expensive enough. We don’t want to make anyone pay some crazy registration fee on top of that.


Q. TRA Marketplace has been around for 84 years. That’s amazing when you really think about it: You’ve helped connect and support the restaurant industry for generations. How do you think such a long lifespan helps you be even more relevant?


A. Our longevity gives us a depth of understanding about how restaurants operate in this state and throughout the United States. We don’t shy away from our history––we use it to be better. We never rest on what we’ve accomplished or how long we’ve been around. Our programming is always very much geared toward the future, with basic, introductory programming serving as bedrock content.


Q. What other TRA Marketplace events should be on attendees’ radar?


A. Our Lone Star Bash is back, now featuring the Texas Restaurant Awards. We’ve held the Lone Star Bash before, but we’ve never combined it with our annual awards ceremony. The Lone Star Bash is a big tasting event with chefs from around the country and live music, which raises money for our education foundation. Our Texas Restaurant Awards celebrate amazing leaders in our industry––and after such a hard year, there is much to be celebrated.


Q. What do you want to say to the restaurateur who is still trying to decide whether or not to attend TRA Marketplace this year?


A. It’s worth it. We hear story after story of people coming for the first time and saying it was so worth it, and then people coming for the 50th time and emphasizing that it was time well spent. People walk away with new information and contacts that create real, positive changes in their lives and businesses. If you put in the work, it’ll be an invaluable experience.


To register and learn more, visit