The world was changing at a dizzying clip as World War I drew to a close, and America’s emerging restaurant industry was determined to keep pace. Among the new realities grasped by the participants in the fast-growing field was the strength afforded by their swelling numbers. In the age before franchising, operations were relatively small, though chains such as Great Childs and Baltimore Lunchrooms were already a force. Many were involved with their local Rotary Clubs and understood the benefits of collaborating on common problems and standing unified against common threats.
During Rotary meetings above the local level, restaurateurs began gravitating toward one another because of their mutual interests. They also learned the nuts and bolts of running a society.
Led by a small group of Rotarians among them, a group of restaurateurs came together in Kansas City, Mo., in 1916 to form an association focused specifically on their needs, the Kansas City Restaurant Association. A similar society came together in the state of New York.
The Kansas group’s collective might would soon be tested. Right after the war, farmers had banded together to drive up the price of eggs to 65 cents a dozen, a potent blow to an industry of small businesses. Standing together, members of the Kansas City Restaurant Association refused to pay the higher prices, hammering down the cost through their boycott to 32 cents a dozen.
Out of that experience arose The National Restaurant Association, a nationwide version of the Kansas City group and the direct predecessor of today’s National Restaurant Association (the “The” was dropped in short order). Sixty-eight restaurateurs from across the country gathered for the formative meeting on March 13, 1919, in Kansas City, pledging to represent 43,000 dining establishments from coast to coast. Today, membership in the Association stands at more than half a million.
“The restaurant men did not come to Kansas City for a good time but to work out a serious problem.” –C.A. "Pat" Patterson, on the association's first convention
The New York group would become the first state-level affiliate—essentially the first state restaurant association.
The national association’s first convention was held Dec. 1-3, 1919, and drew about 200 registrants from 14 states as well as, despite the U.S. focus, the Canadian cities of Toronto and Victoria. The key topic: labor. The issue wasn’t a scarcity of potential hires but the possible unionization of the workforce.
The editor of The American Restaurant, an early competitor to the publication that would become Restaurant Business, was at that first meeting. C.A. “Pat” Patterson had this to say about the gathering:
“One delegate discovered a new way of making doughnuts; another found a system of checking, another found he was not charging enough for coffee. Still another found out a new system of keeping stock and another how to lay out a contemplated commissary. We could continue through the whole list of problems of restaurant men and find something ‘he didn’t know’ carried away by every restaurant delegate there.”
He continued, “The restaurant men did not come to Kansas City for a good time but to work out a serious problem.”
In unity, the group sought solutions to their problems and the strength to promote their mutual interests. As the National Restaurant Association’s first president, John A. Welch, expressed it, “The difference between a locomotive engine and a pile of scrap iron is that one is organized and the other is not.”
The industry had its engine.