The Restaurant Show has come a long, long way on diversity

Reality Check: You wouldn't believe what passed for acceptable in earlier iterations.
National Restaurant Association
The Show has become more diverse over the years. | Photo: Kimberly Kaczmarek.

This year’s National Restaurant Convention is offering three sessions aimed at promoting diversity and inclusion in the business. The industry’s management ranks still aren’t the racial and ethnic mosaic that its workforce has traditionally been, but the show schedule suggests that the push for diversity is gaining momentum again after the setback of the pandemic, when the first order for all restaurant employers was survival.

That’s happening on a macro level. What may not be evident to more than a few of us grizzled show-goers—I prefer the term “vintage attendees”—is how much has changed at exhibit-floor level.

My first Big Show was in 1980. At that time, the only Black men to be seen in what was then just a single-exhibit floor were the temps who were hired to shine shoes at a booth that specialized in drink-dispensing systems. I kid you not. Even at the time, seeing young Back men buffing White men’s brogues and oxfords—most attendees didn’t dare wear anything less formal than a suit back then—was upsetting. Yet there was no shortage of show-goers awaiting a shoe shine.

Just as rare were seeing female attendees. There were plenty of women in the booths, demonstrating kitchen gizmos or hawking some breakthrough in food technology. (The talk of my first show was an abomination called ketchup crystals. Instead of squeezing the condiment on burgers, back-of-house workers could now just sprinkle on a dried version, as if they were salting the patty.) 

Indeed, women were essential to what was one of the show’s highlights at the time, a stretch called Uniform Alley. The area was sort of a fashion catwalk in reverse. Uniform companies on both sides of the aisle displayed the latest in crew wear, though the examples were usually intended for waitresses, with few male models showcasing the garb.

Even stranger was the high volume of outfits that were more suitable for a Victoria’s Secret showroom than a restaurant. Was there really that much of a demand in dining rooms back then for having female servers wear scanty maid outfits?

Fast-forward to this year, with a keynote delivered by the female leader of the National Restaurant Association, Michelle Korsmo.

Contrast that with some of the programming that was offered as late as the late 1980s. To provide some entertainment for attendees’ spouses, who were always assumed to be women, the roster of sessions often included nods to a 1950s lifestyle. One that’s emblazed in my mind was a presentation from Heloise, the syndicated cleaning advisor, who offered her inside tips on how housewives could keep their husband’s castles spotless.

Here again, I kid you not.

And it wasn’t unusual for booths to hire temps wearing skimpy outfits that any parent would burn before letting their daughter wear it.

Clearly the business still has a long way to go in living up to its promise of being an industry of opportunity, where smarts and a willingness to work hard are valued far more than where you went to college—or if you went to college. The industry has to work harder on ensuring that gender or race don’t figure into management recruitment.

But we have come a long way in 40 years. Let’s just hope the pace of change quickens in the new post-pandemic normal.

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