Last weekend, as nationwide protests over police brutality were held across the country, Jack in the Box issued a multipart statement that included a comment from its CEO, Lenny Comma.
It would be the most personal and powerful in a series of statements by restaurant industry executives in a broad show of support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I am a Black man, and husband and father to my Black family,” he wrote. “I am also the current CEO and chairman of Jack in the Box. My heart breaks for what so many in my community have had to endure. We have one simple desire, to live life without fear and injustice. Isn’t that a basic existence that all of us can relate to? I truly hope that one day we can.”
It would also be Comma’s last public comment as Jack in the Box’s CEO. Comma left the San Diego-based company, having previously opted to retire—meaning the restaurant industry lost its last Black CEO of a publicly traded company.
The protests, which followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police last month, have highlighted numerous issues of systemic racism—and also shed a light on the challenges people of color have in the workplace.
In few places is this more evident than in the executive suite. There are few Black executives in the restaurant industry, or anyplace else, and little diversity overall in the C-suite. There are only four Black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, for instance.
The lack of representation in the executive suite stands in contrast to the makeup of the restaurant workforce, which is 74% White, according to federal data. Overall, 13.2% of restaurant employees are Black.
“We have an optics problem,” said Gerry Fernandez, president and founder of the Multicultural Foodservice and Hospitality Alliance. “If you’re at a restaurant, you see lots of women and people of color. As you go higher, lots of White men.”
The lack of diversity in the executive ranks is disconcerting to an industry that not long ago appeared to be making inroads in that direction. At one point, for instance, Black men led the largest casual-dining company (Clarence Otis, Darden Restaurants) and the largest restaurant chain (Don Thompson, McDonald’s).
The data suggests that the industry has not done a good job of developing its own talent pool—a major concern in and of itself, given overall demographic changes in the U.S.
“We have a diverse workforce whether we like it or we don’t, it just is,” Fernandez said. “We’re going to see more Black, more Brown, more Latino, more immigrant populations in our workforce. It’s just the way demographics are going.
“How do we find ways to develop that talent to its highest potential?”
And, he added, people who do feel like they’re being developed and prepared to move up the ranks work harder and produce more. “If you have people who feel valued and included in a company, they give you that thing called discretionary effort,” Fernandez said.
Fernandez said that to improve the pipeline of people of color, and get more diversity into the upper management ranks, companies need to get over their “unconscious bias” that keeps people out.
Often, he said, interviewers will look at ways to keep people out of companies rather than finding ways to opt them in. He also said there are a “lot of unwritten rules” at a lot of organizations that keep some people from advancing.
He said talented people need mentors and sponsors to help them understand these unwritten rules so they can get promoted.
“If you don’t know how to take advantage of the talent you have on your team, it’s like having a Porsche in your garage and you never drive it,” Fernandez said.
Sheilina Henry, a regional vice president of operations for Outback Steakhouse, grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago before her parents decided to put her into a more diverse magnet school on the other side of town.
That move helped prepare her to be around people who looked or spoke differently from her—and for a career in restaurants.
“I started working in restaurants in a predominantly Black and Brown community,” she said. “As my career progressed, I saw fewer people of color. Thankfully, my youth had prepared me for this, so it was a challenge I could overcome.”
Henry said she has had mentors and sponsors along the way to help her advance in her career and notes that she’s been invited to the table by executive leaders who allow her to be herself.
“They allow me to present my whole self, unfiltered,” she said. “With my Baptist upbringing, I might echo an ‘Um-hmm’ now and then. I might wear a dashiki to work or a ‘Black girls rock’ T-shirt, or whether I’m in locs, braids, curls or my trademark Afro, I feel safe being me at work, and that’s how I feel supported.”
Still, Henry is hopeful that the current movement brings about overall change so more people of color can move up through the executive ranks, bringing some of the diversity at the restaurant level into the management ranks.
“The data shows we are highly represented at the restaurant level and scarce at the executive levels, creating a funnel-like image that narrows as it elevates,” Henry said. “Imagine if we eliminated that funnel. I hope the restaurant industry leverages its powerful networks and associations to influence change in social reform as strongly as it would economic reform.”