Leadership

The National Restaurant Association's new chairman has a mission, and you're part of it

Jeff Lobdell, president of Michigan-based Restaurant Partners Management, believes that greater industry unity is key for restaurants to overcome the various issues they face.
Jeff Lobdell
Jeff Lobdell, the 2024 chairman of the National Restaurant Association. | Photo courtesy of the National Restaurant Association

Jeff Lobdell, this year’s chairman of the National Restaurant Association, has had enough of rehashing the restaurant industry’s brush with cataclysm during the pandemic.  

“I’m looking at 2024 as a year to look forward instead of back,” he says.

But there’s one hard lesson from the crisis he’s hellbent on sustaining: The need for industry unity.

“My goal is to bring people together,” the lifelong restaurateur explains during an interview. “Let’s not eat each other. Let’s work together.”

He notes that the business is facing a number of legislative, regulatory and social issues that could be devastating to one segment or another: Attempts at the state level to kill the tip credit, a four-alarm concern for full-service places. Efforts to loosen work-visa regulations, a key issue to hotel restaurants and resort-area establishments. A proposal to outlaw service charges, which would especially sting independents.

He cites particular worries about local mom-and-pop diners, “the little breakfast places” that double as small-town gathering points. “They’ve become so close to their communities,” Lobdell says, yet the economic climate isn’t making their continued existence a given.

“I know how different segments compete with one another, how different restaurants compete with one another,” and that’s healthy, Lobdell says. But “we all tend to do better when the business is healthy. It’s sort of shortsighted to work against one another.”

United, the business can face across-the-board issues like reducing credit card swipe fees, or the downturn in dine-in traffic. Association research shows that 36% of all restaurant meals were consumed onsite before “COVID” entered the vocabulary. Post-pandemic, that share has dropped to 26%.

“I’d like to reverse that,” Lobdell said.

There are also big issues that only a unified trade could hope to address, like comprehensive immigration reform and the huge boost it could give the industry’s labor pool.

“We would like nothing more than immigration reform,” he says, speaking for the association. But “it’s like trying to move a mountain.”

Lobdell can speak of the industry’s various sectors and their concerns because he has a stake in most. In his day job as president of Michigan-based Restaurant Partners Management LLC, he oversees fine-dining restaurants (Rainbow Grill), a gastropub (Rockwell Republic), classic diners (Grand Coney and Flapjack Cafe), daytime dining establishments (Real Food Café and Noble), landmark destinations (Beltline Bar) and quick-service places (Bagel Beanery).

In addition to his 20 restaurants, he manages two hotels.

Lobdell has also been a franchisee (of Checkers) and an operator of casual-dining restaurants (The Cooker.)

If he should have a gap in his knowledge of segments, he need only call a sibling or parent. The restaurant business has truly been a family affair for the graduate of Michigan State’s School of Hospitality.

His father is a longtime quick-service franchisee who put Lobdell to work in one of the elder Lobdell’s KFC stores at age 13. The younger Lobdell’s brother Marty now runs the clan’s 105 KFC and Taco Bell stores.

A second brother, Greg, operates microbreweries and brewpubs.

“I have familiarity with almost all facets of the hospitality industry,” says Jeff.

His familial situation is also a reminder of the opportunities the industry affords individuals regardless of their background and education. He notes that brother Marty was studying to become a lawyer before opting instead to enter the family fast-food business. Greg went to school for architecture but opted for a career in beer instead.

Jeff Lobdell said he set out for a hospitality career while still on the crew side of the business.

“There are so many great opportunities,” says the 58-year-old. “We need to get that story out there, the great opportunities, the income that can be made, and the opportunity for many to own their own business.”

Closer to home, Lobdell wouldn’t mind seeing at least one of his children follow him into the trade. He has four sons ranging in age from single digits to 24.

“Sooner or later, one of them is going to work in the business,” Lobdell says.

But first, he'll be focused on leading the association and pulling its members into an always-unified front. 

"I hope they look back and say, 'Jeff brought us all together,'" he says.

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