Dawn Sweeney: Focusing on innovation and inspiration

dawn sweeney nra restaurant

Since assuming leadership of the National Restaurant Association in 2007, Dawn Sweeney has strengthened the group, sharpened its focus and realigned its priorities. The organization, which represents about 1 million restaurants and foodservice facilities, has become one of the dominant powers in Washington, D.C. But it is far more than a lobbying force today, with programs underway to cultivate tomorrow’s restaurant workforce and help restaurateurs adapt to a fast-changing marketplace.

As the industry’s biggest convention, the NRA Show, was about to begin, we asked Sweeney for an update on the association and its plans for the near future and beyond.

What is the state of the National Restaurant Association today?

The Association is delivering on our multi-year strategic plan that will take us to 2019 (our 100th anniversary!). Things have certainly changed since 1919, but the ultimate goal of helping restaurant businesses succeed remains at the heart of all that we do.

We’ve focused our efforts on building the influence, the image and the engagement of our members and the industry as a whole. Prioritizing our work through those three initiatives –influence, image, and engagement – has allowed us to target our efforts more precisely than ever before.

A lot of our work makes a real impact across more than one of our initiatives. Take the ProStart program, for example. 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 enhances our image as an industry of opportunity, helps build the future workforce, engages local restaurateurs who serve as mentors to students and involves national corporations who help support the program.

We have a very strong advocacy program and we offer remarkable services – like the NRA Show. In fact, we have something to offer everyone in the industry. If you’re not yet a member, please drop by the NRA Hub, Booth #6600, and find out all the National Restaurant Association can do for you. We’ve redesigned that whole area this year with interactive kiosks, touchscreen technology and multimedia displays. A visit there will help you see the benefit of the work we do every day on your behalf.

You mentioned the NRA’s Centennial. What is being planned for that?

Turning 100 is a real milestone for any organization, and we are especially excited to showcase the trajectory of the industry for all to see.

When you stop by the National Restaurant Association Hub at Booth #6600, you’ll see just a few of the historical items we’ve begun to collect. This memorabilia offers a glimpse of the development of our industry by showcasing marketing, service and promotional materials gathered from brands and operations nationwide. The collection will be playing a role when we recognize our 100th anniversary.

We intend the 2019 NRA Show to serve as the centerpiece of our centennial celebration. We’ll have much more to share on our plans as we get closer to 2019.

You’re hosting the Signature ’16 Session here at the NRA Show on Sunday afternoon. What can attendees expect?

Signature ‘16 – Turn the Tables is at 2 p.m. Sunday in the Grand Ballroom. We’ll explore three fundamentally different ways to meet consumer desires and how innovative ideas and technologies are driving each.

First, Kimbal Musk will discuss how he has built his restaurant operations and charitable organization around sustainable practice and local sourcing. His charity, The Kitchen Community, creates school gardens that build a hands-on understanding of how food is grown and cultivated. His restaurants, The Kitchen, are working with local suppliers on menu development, and Musk believes in partnering with the community and like-minded businesses to expand his vision into a bigger movement.

Next, we will look at Denny Marie Post’s innovative approach to increasing customer satisfaction in the restaurant experience. Her focus is on research and leveraging a large organization with a massive loyalty program (there are millions of Red Robin loyalty members) to create an environment that is multi-generation friendly, tech savvy and physically appealing. Red Robin is transforming its brand to meet customers’ evolving preferences. She’ll focus on linking consumers’ needs and desires directly with their restaurant visit.

Third, we step away from food and from the restaurant environment to talk about delivering a new version of the restaurant experience to any setting. Jason Droege will talk about how UberEATS is working to bring restaurant food delivery into a new tech-driven distribution network. Uber works with restaurants to provide safe, quick takeout, sometimes from “restaurants” that have only a digital presence. He will focus on bringing restaurants into the on demand consumer economy.

All of these innovators are transforming standard practice into something new. The range of experience they represent displays the range of innovation occurring within the industry. The ideas they’ll discuss will interest, inspire and stretch new thinking—exactly what the NRA Show is designed to deliver.

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