Special Reports

The National Restaurant Association's role in Washington

Government issues have been as much a part of restaurants as forks and spoons.
Photograph: Shutterstock

In late March, restaurateurs from across the country will set down their menus and reservations books to descend on the U.S. Capitol. They’ll address a business factor that has concerned the industry since operators met in Kansas City, Mo., in 1919 to talk in part about the movement to outlaw alcoholic beverages: legislation. For the past 100 years, government affairs have been as much a part of the business as knives and napkins. 

The event in March, the National Restaurant Association’s Public Affairs Conference, brings restaurateurs to Washington, D.C., for face-to-face meetings with their congressmen and senators. But the industry’s advocacy role extends year-round, nationally and on state and local levels. If a legislative or regulatory issue affects the general population, chances are it’s of concern to restaurants. 

“We’re in an industry that legislation touches one way or another,” says Xavier Teixido, operator of Harry’s Savoy Grill and other restaurants in the Wilmington, Del., area. 

As one of the private sector’s largest employers, the business feels the effects of virtually any workforce-related development, from mandatory sexual harassment training to education policies. 

As America’s kitchens, restaurants can also feel the impact of any economic or social measure. The industry has been part of the discussion of everything from mobilizing for World War II to countering discrimination via the Americans with Disabilities Act. Some issues, such as expanding healthcare coverage, have been on the industry’s plate for decades. 

 “As a group, we have the opportunity to speak louder when we speak as one voice.” —Melvin Rodrigue, Galatoire’s Restaurants

The effort to protect and promote the industry’s interests is led by the lobbyists of the National Restaurant Association, their state counterparts and the government affairs teams of allied groups such as the International Franchise Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The restaurant association is seen as one of the most powerful lobbying forces in D.C. 

But the Association is quick to say the industry’s most effective government influencers are rank-and-file operators.

“They unlock the door for us,” says Stan Harris, CEO of the Louisiana Restaurant Association. “The information they provide about how things affect them is really important.”

Legislation and regulation is usually well-intentioned, but the effects may be more burdensome than government principals realize. During the 1970s oil embargo, when gasoline was in short supply, some politicians called for closing service stations on weekends. Restaurateurs pointed out they’d be killed by the move. Then, and often during the past century, operators had the credibility and street-level insight to highlight the real impact.

“It’s not just stopping bad legislation, it’s shaping the legislation so it’s good for everyone,” says Marilou Halvorsen, president of the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association.

The restaurant business had, by its own admission, been developing a reputation as the industry that always says no to government proposals. That was tempered by the trade’s call for the federal menu labeling mandate that took effect May 7, 2018. 

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