The National State of the Industry for restaurants was held on May 11 with National Restaurant Association CEO Tom Bené and Washington Hospitality Association CEO Anthony Anton. The virtual conference delved into issues facing almost every restaurateur in the nation and gave members important insights on the perspective of the national organization. Washington Hospitality Board Chair Ron Oh opened the conference with a brief story…
Ron, a hotelier, shared that his first job was at a full-service hotel that included a restaurant and bar. While one a break from school, he was going to meet with his family at the restaurant, but his father wasn’t there – a waiter said his dad was too busy and that the family should eat without him. Ron went back to the kitchen and helped his dad wash dishes through the rush and later, while they were eating their cold dinner, his dad said, “I’m sorry you have to do that, but Merry Christmas.” Ron said it was one of the most memorable Christmases ever. The passion that everyone involved in the hospitality industry feels for the business they are involved with is a special connection that makes them especially eager to overcome adversity. That would become a theme of the conversation for the rest of the event.
To begin, Tom Bené engaged in conversation with restaurant experts and panelists Bret Stewart, Brian Moreno, and Jenny Rojanasthien. Bené highlighted a few of the most important national accomplishments this year including the Restaurant Revitalization Fund (RRF) and the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). He said they are asking for additional money for the RRF. They estimate that $120 billion is what the industry will need to fully recover, but the RRF was funded at $28.6 billion. The national association will be fighting to show the public and legislators how important hospitality businesses are to the communities in which we live and work.
Next, Bené addressed the difference in politics and viewpoints from state to state. How does the national association facilitate the conversation regarding coronavirus restrictions when there are so many differences between opening plans?
“The importance of coming together as one industry” helps at both the state and federal level by making us more powerful, he said. Communicating at a high level about the broad importance of the industry has allowed individual states and associations to focus on direct messaging regarding their specific situations. However, the national association and Bené have been meeting personally with governors and mayors from across the country and they have been developing best practices across the states.
Is indoor dining safe?
This has been a question that many people outside of the industry have wondered, and messaging has been unclear depending on the source. Panelists discussed the confusion surrounding the subject while pointing out that food service is one of the most thoughtful industries when it comes to food safety and cleanliness in general. On the national front, the ServSafe Dining Commitment has been established to educate consumers on why they should feel safe returning to restaurants. The National Restaurant Association has advertisements across all channels that showcase what the industry is doing to make sure indoor dining is safe for guests. There is a ServSafe logo that establishments can put on their door to certify that they are following these standards.
When the conversation switched to innovation that will last beyond the pandemic, there was no shortage of examples. Technology in general is advancing to meet modern needs and Bené noted that he has heard the technology advancement in the last year would have taken five years had there not been a radical shift in the needs brought on by the pandemic. The innovation surrounding food delivery and a shift to comfort food was notable, and the resurgence of QR codes which had been decreasing in popularity is also interesting. The panelists also discussed menu streamlining, ghost kitchens, and alcohol to-go which is especially relevant for Washington after big wins this legislative session to extend alcohol to-go privileges.
The workforce challenge
Another theme throughout the discussion were the challenges employers face in recruiting and retaining employees. This was an issue before the pandemic, and it has only become a more dire situation. Additional funding, childcare solutions, and providing safety and security for employees are some top issues that the national association has identified and is working through, but there is also an opportunity to innovate through the problem as many restaurateurs have done with other issues recently. Bené shared a story of an operator who has expanded the number of tables per server but has also equipped them with new technology so they can still provide that quality-of-service customers expect. Immigration and general sustainability were also mentioned as pre-existing issues that restaurateurs will face after the pandemic.
The conversation ended much as it began with participants sharing their confidence that the industry will overcome challenges thanks to the passion that everyone feels for the work they do. Whether it is technical programs and scholarships at the national level that guide new cooks through the process, or the unified push to make outdoor dining ordinances and alcohol-to-go laws permanent, the consensus was that we are poised for a recovery at every level, and we have the best people in the world working to do so as soon as possible.
Watch the full video of the Restaurant State of the Industry.