(May 25) CHICAGO — McCormick Place convention center was like a city unto itself May 20-23 with 73,000 foodservice representatives and the likes of President Bush and Ted Koppel making speeches at the 87th annual National Restaurant Association Restaurant Hotel-Motel Show.

For the first time in 20 years, the convention sold out of exhibit space with more than 2,100 booths representing all things restaurant — from such minor supplies as straws to big name brands like Coca-Cola.

Among the 16 produce booths sprinkled throughout, suppliers hoped to catch the attention of the big chains, and just one large customer could make it worth the whole experience and expense, said Mike O’Leary, director of sales and marketing for the fresh-cut division of Boskovich Farms Inc., Oxnard, Calif.

He added that he usually walks away with at least one large new account.

To create its buzz, The Idaho Potato Commission, Eagle, collected names for two drawings a day for DVD players and gave out DVDs with baked potato ideas, said Don Odiorne, vice president of foodservice.

Among first-time exhibitors, Pro*Act, Monterey, Calif., entered with a splash. The network of more than 45 produce distributors brought a sales force and eight chefs to demonstrate the products the group sells.

Pro*Act hoped to reach national and multiregional foodservice accounts for the company as a whole and to reach smaller regional operators to drive business to Pro*Act’s individual distributors, said president and chief executive officer Steve Grinstead.

Even a small family farm, Scarborough Farms, Oxnard, Calif., came for the first time to see what kind of business it could get among the giants. The company sells specialty lettuces, salad mixes and fresh herbs.

“We exhibited because we want to reach chefs directly,” said president Ann Stein.

Show veterans also were excited. Boggiatto Produce Inc., Salinas, Calif., made a return with its introduction from last year, Iceberg Babies lettuce. President Michael Boggiatto said that last year the company doubled its sales leads from the previous year and increased sales of its baby iceberg lettuce fivefold.

Gills Onions, Oxnard, Calif., promoted its whole peeled onions rather than its variety of fresh-cut items this year, as the product appeals to more foodservice operators.

The whole peeled onions are the gateway into fresh-cut onions, said Southeast account manager Todd Dunnican.