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Charting a path for restaurants’ continued growth

Dawn Sweeney discusses new career pathways and offers a glimpse into the National Restaurant Association’s upcoming centennial
Dawn Sweeney

The National Restaurant Association® exists to protect and promote the interests of the nation’s more than 1 million restaurants, but it’s been a boon for the awards business as well. Since Dawn Sweeney became president and CEO of the organization, she, her team, and the Association have earned enough honors and awards to stock a fair-sized trophy store.

We recently asked Sweeney to steal a few minutes from her hectic schedule and share her perspective on how far the Association has come, where it’s heading, and what challenges it will likely face in the near and long-term.

Not long ago, the National Restaurant Association was viewed primarily as an advocacy group. Now it’s administering apprenticeship programs, participating in healthy dining programs, running innovation conferences, and helping operators with health insurance. What’s the mission today of the Association, and how is that changing?

Our core mission remains unchanged: “We serve our members by advancing and protecting America’s restaurant and foodservice industry.” How we accomplish that mission can change over time because the political, social, and technological landscapes continually shift. We have a responsibility to defend the backbone of American communities— entrepreneurship and old-fashioned hospitality—and we regularly evaluate alternative approaches that will deliver on the promise of our mission. Right now, the barriers posed by over-regulation threaten our industry’s ability to grow and to benefit local communities. We are committed to tearing these hurdles down, and to empowering businesses to do what they do best: hire locally and enhance the vibrancy of local communities.

What’s ahead for restaurants? What changes are on the horizon for operators today?

As I talk with restaurateurs across the country, their number one concern remains recruitment and retention of employees. In a survey conducted earlier this year, 38 percent of restaurant operators recently reported recruitment and retention as their top challenge. That’s up from 20 percent two years ago. The National Restaurant Association and our Educational Foundation are intensely focused on developing solutions that address the issue of workforce development. I serve on the White House’s Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion and have worked alongside Labor Secretary Acosta to develop the next generation of restaurant and hospitality employees. Through a nearly $2 million grant from the Department of Labor, our Educational Foundation has been able to place more than 400 people into industry apprenticeships and develop career pathways. We are also focused on showing our members how to take advantage of new technology and digital platforms. Online ordering, kiosks, and mobile payments are quickly gaining traction, and we want to help our members adopt the technologies that are right for their businesses.

Tell us in particular about apprenticeships, the Association’s role in piloting that career track, and what potential you see there for the industry, if not the whole business community. What are the opportunities available to everyone in the industry?

Apprenticeships create more affordable job training and career development opportunities for the millions of Americans who work in restaurants, foodservice, and hospitality. Our initiative, the nation’s first Hospitality Sector Registered Apprenticeship program, offers individuals interested in foodservice and hospitality industry careers to earn while they learn—through hands-on training and classroom education. Direct benefits of apprenticeship include mentoring, reduced turnover costs, increased productivity, higher job satisfaction, and a more skilled and competitive workforce.

Few would dispute that the lines are blurring between restaurants and other ready-to-eat food sellers like convenience stores and supermarkets. From the Association’s standpoint, are they friend or foe? Are they seen as potential newcomers to the Association’s restaurant constituency?

Absolutely—we have a seat for everyone at the National Restaurant Association table. We represent the entire foodservice industry and welcome all ready-to-eat food sellers who want to provide a great dining experience and service to every customer, regardless of the type of business. We offer a number of benefits to our members: access to expert networking groups, regular communications on regulatory updates and new legislation that could have a dramatic effect on a company’s bottom line, and insightful information about the latest industry trends and opportunities.

This year’s annual convention in Chicago seems to bear a number of changes from the past. Could you tell us about some of those, and why they were undertaken?

All of the changes attendees see at this year’s Show are a product of the feedback attendees and exhibitors provided to us. We understand and appreciate that our guests sacrifice valuable time that could be spent with their families and businesses to attend the Show. This time must prove valuable for them, and it is our goal to exceed their expectations. I am looking forward to hearing Dr. Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. Secretary of State, reflect on U.S. foreign policy, international relations, and national security during our Signature session on Sunday. On Monday, attendees can learn more about the technology and ideas that will shape our industry for years to come during the Future of Restaurants SuperSession. Also, the redesigned Kitchen Innovations Showroom includes a variety of on-trend foodservice equipment sessions featuring panel discussions with industry experts, which are sure to be fascinating.

So, what’s ahead? Any sneak previews of other areas that the Association intends to address in the months and years ahead, as the National Restaurant Association Show approaches its centennial?

As we approach our centennial in 2019, we are spending a lot of time charting a path for our industry’s continued growth in the future. We are designing strategies that will enable us to continue to provide our members with high value services and increase the industry’s profile across the country. The recent launch of the Restaurant & Hospitality Association Benefit Trust Health Plan, which provides a health benefits solution for small businesses with two to 99 insurance-eligible employees, is just one example of the kind of issues the Association plans to tackle and solve in the future.

Washington seems to have changed its approach to business regulation under the current administration. How has that changed the Association’s approach to protecting and promoting the industry’s interests?

Our active engagement with the administration and Congress has produced significant results for our industry in 2017, and we will continue to build upon those achievements this year. Our public affairs strategy mirrors that of the Association’s: we will continue to enhance our image, increase our engagement, and expand our influence to provide our members with the greatest value and the strongest opportunities for success.

The conventional wisdom holds that major government concerns like wage and benefit mandates are being pushed down to the state level, where they’re more likely to be embraced than they are in the Washington of today. Is that true, and how is that changing the national association’s relations with state restaurant associations?

Our state restaurant and lodging associations are key partners in our industry’s success. Whether we are hosting a roundtable with local restaurant owners and members of Congress, eliminating harmful regulations, or rolling out new health care plans for our members, the support, knowledge, and insight provided by our state partners and local leaders is critical. State legislatures have recently become more active, and it is essential that we continue to build on our strategic alignments with the state restaurant associations to promote the interest of our members at the state and local levels.

This post is sponsored by The National Restaurant Association®

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