Building the industry’s next generation of leaders
The National Restaurant Association exists to protect and promote the interests of the nation’s over 1 million restaurants, but it’s been a boon for the awards business as well. Since Dawn Sweeney became president and CEO of the organization nearly a decade ago, she, her team and the association have earned enough honors and awards to stock a fair-sized trophy store.
We recently asked Sweeney to steal a few minutes from her hectic schedule and share her perspective on how far the association has come, where it’s heading, and what challenges it will likely face in the near and long-term.
You’re closing in on your 10-year anniversary at the NRA. What would you regard as your top achievements to date?
The mission at the National Restaurant Association has always been to help restaurants be successful and continue to thrive while providing the best service for their guests. Some of the biggest challenges have come on the policy front, and our government relations team, along with the state restaurant associations, have accelerated our advocacy and impact through state, local and federal government on a wide range of policy issues.
Our advocacy promotes the industry and has increased the visibility of what restaurants do for the economy, careers and communities. We’ve also aligned our priorities to ensure we can help our industry develop a strong workforce and build the next generation of leaders. That includes our ProStart program for high school students, and our work with the Department of Labor to build a competency model that maps the skills and knowledge needed to advance in our industry.
Was there a struggle that was particularly difficult?
Yes! When I stepped into the role in 2007, the nation was moving into the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. The recession hit our members early and hard. Our challenge was to advance and protect our industry as our members navigated a new economic landscape while keeping their bottom lines growing. At the same time, to keep our organization strong, we needed to focus on building the financial strength to continue to drive our mission forward.
As our industry grew stronger and evolved following the recession, our association has done the same. We have adopted some innovative, forward-looking business strategies that have put us on track to doubling our revenues from $50 million to more than $100 million within my 10-year tenure to date. We have acquired new businesses, moved our headquarters, revamped our membership structure and changed our governance to reflect the 21st century realities for our members.
And what’s ahead? What big challenges are likely to confront the industry, and what’s the NRA doing to prepare?
One of the biggest challenges remains labor pressures and workforce-development issues, all of which we’re tackling directly through our advocacy and by sharpening the focus of our Educational Foundation to ensure that we are doing all we can to help society solve some of the issues in our country today. Recruitment and retention issues impact restaurants of all sizes, so we are working to tackle these issues head on. In many cases, America’s restaurateurs – as the nation’s second-largest private-sector employer -- are in a unique position to help address these issues.
The Educational Foundation has proved to be a vital resource for training tomorrow’s workforce through their ProStart program, which continues to provide opportunities for students from every background. ProStart classes, offered in 1,800 high schools across the nation, immerse high school students in the world of foodservice through culinary and management courses. ProStart helps build the future workforce, engages local restaurateurs who serve as mentors to students and involves national foodservice companies who help support the program.
Another important focus of the NRA Show this year is navigating the ever-changing technology environment our members face. We want to provide the necessary tools and information for our members to utilize technology to keep their businesses current and responsive.
You’ve learned a great deal about how the restaurant industry runs. Tell us a little about how the association business has changed. How has the function of an association changed, and how did you adapt the NRA to those currents?
The association world has changed significantly over the past decade. Associations must deliver products and services to our members with speed and trust. Our members have information coming at them from all sides. Social media has accelerated the pace of everything we do. Public policy challenges have proliferated, and in many cases our biggest challenges and opportunities have moved from the federal to the state and local levels, and often to courtrooms and even ballot boxes.
To get our messages out, we must use every tool in a rapidly expanding communications toolbox. And we need a laser-sharp focus on what’s next. We can’t just help our members with their current challenges. We need to know what’s around the corner. We can’t do any of this alone. As we serve our industry, we must forge strong partnerships – coalitions with like-minded organizations, like IFMA, WFF, and IFDA, with our state restaurant associations, and with our suppliers and members, to advance our agenda on behalf of our industry.
So how does it function differently today?
We continue to value the one-on-one advocacy and relationship building efforts that we engage in on Capitol Hill. We have also implemented new methods to accelerate our advocacy and public affairs strategy; grassroots engagement through strengthened partnership with the state restaurant associations; an expanded digital footprint and an expanded emphasis on legal advocacy.
We recently launched the Restaurant Law Center, which gives us a new avenue to make sure the voice of America’s restaurants is heard on the legal front. We have worked to expand our grassroots efforts through our Kitchen Cabinet program which has launched in 20 communities to date across the country.
How have the NRA’s goals and methods altered, if at all, with the Republicans now controlling the White House, the Senate and the House? What is its relationship to the Trump Administration?
Every time there is a new administration and new Congress, we see it as a new opportunity to engage on issues important to our industry. We work to be good partners and have noticed a lot more outreach as we condition the environment around employer focused issues and communicate our priorities. We see this as a favorable atmosphere for our business community to have those willing partners.
On that (hopefully) far-future date when you decide to retire or pursue a new challenge, what do you hope will be your legacy, your lasting stamp, on the industry?
I was thrilled to come in as the National Restaurant Association’s first female president and CEO in 2007, and even more thrilled to be leading the organization as we head toward our centennial celebration in 2019.
I’d be happy if my legacy is showing the power of diversity. It has been my life’s passion to be part of a team that is diverse and inclusive, and I’m proud to work on behalf of an industry that truly values and promotes diversity and inclusion as a core business and social value each and every day. It is the “collective genius” of different points of view, different life experiences and different values and priorities that leads us to the best and highest outcomes.
All of what we do matters, and it matters deeply not just “what” we do, but “how” and “why” we do it.