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Shouldering the job of chief industry innovator

For a political sideliner, Phil Kafarakis is playing a heavy role in the industry’s lobbying efforts.

His mission, explains the new head of innovation for the National Restaurant Association, is not to shape legislation or regulation, but to provide resources for the government affairs team and its allies to watchdog the industry’s interests from coast to coast.

Part of the task is generating more hard dollars by leading the recognized Beltway titan into new businesses, from e-learning to content licensing. But the 30-year industry veteran is also charged with brainstorming services and products that benefit everyone with a stake in the business, including customers.

If there’s a financial upside to making the business a better place, so much the better.  And as politically inexperienced as Kafarakis professes to be, he’s not oblivious to the advocacy benefits. The more benevolent the industry, the less adversarial the public or its officials feel the need to be.

He cites the example of the Edge Card, the NRA product that enables restaurant employees to collect their wages if they don’t have a bank account and don’t want to pay the hefty fees levied by check-cashing storefronts.

“Of the 13 million [people] we’ve identified as our workforce, approximately 30 percent are what we regard as un-banked,” or lacking fundamental financial services like a checking account, says Kafarakis.

Unlike the payroll cards that are currently under investigation by the New York attorney general, the NRA’s Edge Card is more like an electronic wallet, a card that employees control. They can manage the balance of funds on the card, even adding to the total as they could with a debit card. Employers can also add a reward or content prize to the card, so employees don’t have to worry about carrying around a lump sum of cash.

For those reasons, says Kafarakis, there’s no controversy to its use.

Kafarakis believes the association could draw more users, particularly with all the negative publicity focused today on payroll cards, if it could make members and the public more aware of the Edge Card’s benefits.

He cites a number of other products that could similarly benefit from marketing and sales attention, which he was hired in part to deliver. 

“Those are what have been in the works behind the curtains that now need some marketing and sales,” he says. “This NRA that a lot of people don’t know is a hybrid. It is a business machine.”

For instance, the NRA is a little-known powerhouse in the training business and certification business through ServSafe, a program developed to safeguard operators from the outbreak of a food-borne illness. It’s now the industry standard, accepted as proof of food-safety training by municipalities and counties from coast to coast. “There’s a whole business inside, a huge, huge business platform,” says Kafarakis.

The association can build on that base by becoming a global marketer of food-safety certification and education, he notes.

Kafarakis said he will also brainstorm completely new business lines for the association. “The NRA is a brand. We went through a logo change and an identify change not long ago,” he explains.

His title is technically chief innovation & member advancement officer. “If I take care of the first part, the member advancement part will take care of itself,” he says. “Member advancement is an output of what innovation can bring.”

In his view, the additional products and services will boost members’ profits and quality of life, benefiting not only the national organization by its state affiliates as well.

Kafarakis spent the first 60 days of his tenure on a cross-country trip, meeting with state restaurant association executives to harvest their ideas and strengthen ties with Washington headquarters. “The interesting thing with the states is they already have some of this innovation going on,” he says. “They are some of the shrewdest and best business people you’ve ever met.”

Kafarakis believes he can complement their know-how, and the talent of the NRA’s home office, with what he’s learned in 30 decades on the supplier side of the business.

“It goes back to [NRA CEO] Dawn [Sweeney’s] vision,” says Kafarakis, who was recruited out of retirement from McCormick & Co. at age 55. He’d earlier logged time with Cargill, Jones Dairy Farms, Oscar Meyer and Kraft. “They wanted somebody who had a business background who came out of the manufacturer community. They wanted someone who could bring in branded consumer packaged goods sensibilities.”

Kafarakis wouldn’t reveal the financial targets that are being set for his post, but he mentioned another milestone he’s striving to hit. Three years from now, if you ask NRA members and directors for an assessment of the association’s progress, “I want them to say, ‘Hmm, ever since Phil came in….’

“I want to drive that, because it’s huge.”

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