The restaurant industry tries a potent new lobbying weapon

Government Watch: The National Restaurant Association is setting up a network that turns rank-and-file operators into "super-advocates" for the business. Also: Face mask mandates could make a comeback, but in a different way.
The most powerful sort of political lobbyist? | Photo: Shutterstock

Government WatchWelcome to Government Watch, a new Restaurant Business column focused on regulatory, legislative, labor and other governmental issues of relevance to the restaurant industry.

The restaurant industry’s lobbying clout lies in its numbers. When a call to the ramparts goes out to roughly 1 million establishments employing 12.4 million voters and contributing more than $1 trillion to the Gross National Product, elected officials tend to respond when that behemoth roars.

But sometimes the industry’s case is best made one-to-one: one operator talking to one congressman or senator about how a piece of legislation would affect that constituent’s restaurant, a place the official might even know from having eaten there regularly during district visits. The theoretical becomes very real.

That’s the lightning the National Restaurant Association is striving to bottle with a new program aimed at protecting and promoting the industry’s interests. Working with state affiliates, the group has recruited 200 operator-volunteers as “Hill runners,” or individuals who have a personal relationship with their elected federal officials. It intends to continue growing that number until the industry has a one-on-one connection with all 535 U.S. senators and congressmen.

The participants are less minutemen summoned for some political skirmish than ambassadors who have the ear and trust of their electees. With that sort of access, they can explain how a piece of legislation or regulatory proposal would affect them and their staffs in very practical terms, as if they were two neighbors chatting across a backyard fence.

“They’re almost super-advocates,” says Mike Whatley, VP of state affairs and grassroots advocacy for the National Restaurant Association. The program is currently being harnessed for what the association calls A Summer of Action, which Whatley characterizes as “our first sprint of advocacy.” Every Hill runner is being coached to meet with their legislative buddy when the officials are back in their districts during Congress’ summer recess.  

Because the suggested meeting place is the runner’s restaurant, it will likely be an easy sell. “Everybody loves going to restaurants,” remarks Whatley.

The association provides the runners with the background to speak confidently with the officials. “We give them the inside scoop about what’s happening in the halls of Congress,” says Whatley. “We give them a lot of material, a lot of suggestions. We’re in the process of developing several toolkits.”

It’s that insider-y perspective that makes the role enjoyable for the runners, he adds. Indeed, that and the sense of controlling their destiny are the big paybacks; the runners aren’t paid or subsidized. And they’re still active restaurateurs, meaning they’re as chronically short on time as any entrepreneur who’s trying to make payroll.

Yet the volunteers have come from all types of restaurants and backgrounds. “I’m amazed by the depth and diversity of whom we’ve attracted—in terms of the age spectrum, but also in terms of the segment,” says Whatley. “We have fine-dining people involved, we have quick service involved. It’s across the board.”

The industry has strived for decades to bolster more grassroots involvement in the political process, only to be thwarted by the notoriously long days and weeks that restaurateurs log. The pushback was always having too little time to get politically involved.

That mindset changed during the pandemic, says Whatley. With survival less than certain, restaurants rallied for help from government.

“We had an outpouring of support from everyone during the pandemic,” he recounts. “We had hundreds of thousands of individuals reaching out to their congressmen, and it was very successful. That’s why we got aid programs like PPP [the Paycheck Protection Program] and the RRF [Restaurant Revitalization Fund].”

The association spent at least a year putting together the Hill runners program, working closely with state associations. Part of the due diligence was studying how other trade associations mustered their members when grassroots involvement was critical.

The program is now in 39 states. The recruitment effort will continue until that number hits 50, Whatley says.

Face masks are a political issue again

At least two states are wading back into the minefield of face-mask regulations, but this time the question is whether the coverings should be banned.

The motivation has no connection to COVID. Rather, the impetus this time is a fear of violence. Politicians in North Carolina and New York say assailants are using the masks to hide their identities when they attack unsuspecting victims. In the wake of the pandemic, no one thinks twice about someone wearing the protective device. Officials say the stealth tactic has proven particularly popular with pro-Palestinian protestors who resort to violence against people who are suspected of being Jewish or indicate their support for Israel in the Gaza war.

Proposals for a ban have yet to move forward to any significant degree in either state, and none of the talk specifically addresses restaurant customers, or at least not yet. Indeed, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul has thus far limited her talk of a ban to prohibiting the coverings in subways.

Restaurant union doubles its recruitment budget

After two years of unprecedented union activity in the restaurant business, one of the industry’s largest labor groups warned last week that employers ain’t seen nothing yet. The new president of Unite Here used her inaugural address to announce the labor powerhouse is doubling its recruitment budget, with an eye on the 14 million restaurant and hotel employees whose workplaces remain union-free.

Marriott, Hyatt and Hilton were cited as particular targets by Gwen Mills, who promised a “historic showdown” in the lodging business.

Mills also pledged to strengthen the union’s political muscle in Arizona, Ohio and Michigan, where organized labor has led efforts to kill the tip credit, as well as in Pennsylvania and Nevada. Although it’s routine for union members to knock on doors or otherwise campaign for sympathetic political candidates, Mills indicated that restaurant cooks and dishwashers will be instrumental in that effort this election cycle.

SBA remains an engine for restaurant startups

The U.S. Small Business Administration drew considerable criticism during the pandemic for its handling of the PPP and RRF programs, but that hasn’t tarnished the agency’s reputation as a leading source of funding for restaurant startups. Between 2021 and June of this year, the SBA has fielded more than 1 million requests for capital to launch an eating or lodging establishment, according to an analysis prepared by the agency for Restaurant Business. About 800,000 of those ventures were restaurants, the SBA calculated.

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