To get to the action at the National Restaurant Association (NRA) Show, you take an escalator to the third floor of the South Building at McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago. Entering the floor feels like entering Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. It’s a world of pure imagination, with robots gliding around and automated sandwich-assembly stations.

I injured myself within five minutes. Starving from a food-less plane ride, I strolled up to the Broaster Express booth and helped myself to a complimentary potato wedge. “Be careful, it’s hot,” I was told. Pshaw. How hot can it be? This isn’t an episode of “Hot Ones.” But I gulped it while I was walking and talking, never a good idea, and it went down too quickly and it was in fact hot. Yikes. My first time at the show and I scald the lining of my throat. Was this an omen of things to come? Would I be destined to spend my time grimacing and gobbling Advil? Well, yes. But did it interfere with my enjoyment? Not at all.

As I strolled the crowded aisles I would hear fragments of sales pitches coming from booths on both sides. “Faster and slower at lower temperatures.” “All in under 10 minutes.” “Solves your kitchen automation.” It was a cacophony of persuasive rhetoric.

Hot topics emerged amidst the din. Artificial intelligence was on the lips of operators. Everyone knows it’s coming. For some it’s already here. Acolytes talked up the value in tracking inventory and analyzing data. You could see “wouldn’t that be nice?” thought bubbles form above operator heads.

Sustainability was also big. Nature’s Source, which is affiliated with Supreme Source & Supply, made waves with its Carbon Footprint Management Service. The technology allows operators to follow its packaging footprint back to its source materials, in real time, and make adjustments to meet sustainability objectives.

The gee-wow winner for me came from Pudu and its CC1 cleaning robot. It scrubs, sweeps, vacuums, and dust-mops. It moves like a Roomba on steroids. It isn’t cheap – it can cost northward of $24,000 — but holy macaroni.

But to discover the true wonder of the four-day show, you need to go off the beaten path. Of course, do take in everything exuberant and glorious on the third floor. But then take the stairs down to the second floor. Not the escalator. The stairs. And when you’re at the bottom, take a right and walk under them, like you’re in a C.S. Lewis book. Go 20 feet. Turn right. And there you will find a landing. It’s nothing much. Maybe 12 tables with chairs and a few sofas. Just a place to relax and get off your feet. Sit down. Center yourself. Listen. What you hear will be what’s really on the mind of operators.

I sat at one table just a few feet from two operators, one a veteran, the other a newcomer. The newbie was overwhelmed and the veteran was dropping wisdom. Here is an excerpt.

“What is stressing you out?”

“I’m stretched too thin.”

“So hire someone to manage the place while you focus on the big picture.”

“I tried to do that but it didn’t work.”

“Why not?”

“I still want to do everything.”

“You can’t. You’ll burn out.”

“I’m not sure what my next step is.”

“Listen, you should do what you’re good at. If it’s managing, do that. If it’s marketing, do that. Then hire for the rest.”

“That’s good advice.”

“It was nice to meet you, man.”

“You as well.”

Then the veteran got up and walked back up the stairway.

And that is the true value of attending the show. Sure, the million-dollar tech displays are cool. Even better is the million-dollar peer support. Look for it under the stairs.