Before the industry came together as a national force, restaurateurs would rally on a local basis against mutual threats. A century later, state restaurant associations are still functioning as that first line of protection—part Paul Revere, part special forces, part educator of operator and consumer alike.
“The state restaurant associations are very, very important because most of the bad stuff comes out of the states,” says Ted Balestreri, co-proprietor of the famed Sardine Factory in Monterey, Calif.
The more than 50-year industry veteran is the longest-serving director on the National Restaurant Association’s board, and it’s not a coincidence he’s been a champion of the California Restaurant Association for all that time. He sees how the groups work in concert, mustering support as needed for each other’s causes.
A number of key industry issues first arose on a state basis, from the so-called living wage to menu labeling. In other instances, matters never rise above a local level, making state associations an operator’s main bulwark against unfair or burdensome initiatives.
Karen Bremer, CEO of the Georgia Restaurant Association (GRA), notes that her state consists of 159 counties, each with different codes and regulations affecting the restaurant industry. The rules governing alcohol service alone number 652.
The national association couldn’t monitor a network like that across 50 states. The GRA not only answers questions from members about specific regulations but also knows whom to approach if there’s an issue or proposed change.
“The state restaurant associations are very, very important because most of the bad stuff comes out of the states.” —Ted Balestreri, The Sardine Factory
To coordinate the activities of the state and national associations, the parties came together several years ago to hammer out a document that lays out the advocacy responsibilities and roles of each. “The Unified Partner Agreement (UPA) addresses who’s responsible for what,” says Marilou Halvorsen, president of the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association.
“We have a fairly seamless relationship—the UPA puts out a clear pathway,” says Stan Harris, CEO of the Louisiana Restaurant Association.
The guidelines are intended to help not only state association executives and lobbyists with the national group, but also members. “Operations that have units in all 50 states don’t have to join all 50 state associations,” says Halvorsen. “The UPA formalizes the relationship between the National Restaurant Association and the state associations.” Members can find out where to turn for leadership, regardless of the issue.