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    The Advocate

  • Dawn Sweeney is tasked with helping nearly 1 million restaurants be more profitable. No pressure or anything.

    joe shymanski
    NRA CEO Dawn Sweeney has helped the restaurant industry weather the economic storm of the last five years.

    “Many would like to characterize our industry as one of minimum wage,” Sweeney says. “We need to characterize this as the industry of maximum opportunity, because we are uniquely positioned to provide career opportunities, growth, training, development—all kinds of things that other industries just don’t have the wherewithal or even the environment to offer. If you want to learn how to develop your interpersonal skills, there’s really no better place to do that than the restaurant industry.”

    Sweeney should know. Early in her tenure at the NRA, she committed to working every role in the restaurant industry to better understand what her constituents went through. Though today she admits that goal might be “Don Quixote-ish,” she notes that her experiences serving at several restaurants—experiences that include work as a bartender, a hostess, a prep cook, and a Wendy’s drive-thru employee—give her critical insight that improves her leadership abilities. For example, working as a prep cook helped her wrap her head around the flexibility needed for some operations through the menu-labeling mandate.

    But working in restaurants has also given Sweeney an appreciation for all of the behind-the-scenes work involved in turning the cogs of the business. And for a woman who represents an industry that includes world-renowned chefs like Tom Colicchio, Grant Achatz, and Sean Brock, Sweeney has a soft spot in her heart for quick-service restaurants.

    “As someone who has worked in that job—I have worked in three different quick serves flipping burgers, as some say—I will tell you, I’ve never worked so hard in my life,” Sweeney says. “That is a tough job that takes a lot of attention, it takes a lot of multitasking, it takes a lot of good interpersonal skills, it takes a really strong physical constitution to be able to stand up and do this for eight, 10 hours at a time. And if you’re good at that, you can be good at something else.”

    Sweeney is optimistic for the future. She believes there is plenty of opportunity for all restaurants to increase their market share and improve profitability. After all, a little less than half of Americans’ food dollars are spent away from home, and disposable income is once again growing. She also believes quick-service and full-service restaurants will continue to evolve to best serve the demands of the consumer.

    But for the industry to truly thrive, she says, congressional representatives, the business world, and American consumers alike will need to understand the unique stories going on behind the scenes at restaurants. Stories of the $3 billion a year restaurants donate to community initiatives. Stories of efforts across the restaurant industry to fight hunger. Stories of operators acting as first responders after national tragedies.

    Stories of a 50-something executive with the power to shape the nation’s GDP working the drive-thru line at Wendy’s.

    “The perseverance and the sheer determination of people in this industry to get to the right answer, I’ve just never seen anything like it, and I love it,” she says. “It challenges me every day to be better and to not accept anything but the right answer, whatever that right answer is.”

    Nope, not intimidating at all.

    Where They Stand on the Issues

    Dawn Sweeney says the NRA has 78 different issues it’s working on for the restaurant industry. Here, a look at its position on a few of those hot-button topics.

    › Health Care

    The 2010 health-care law and its implementation will pose new costs and other challenges for restaurateurs. The National Restaurant Association is working to address provisions of the law that have the greatest impact on restaurateurs’ ability to create jobs, especially parts of the law covering the employer mandate and its related penalties. At the same time, the NRA has been working to provide restaurant operators flexibility through the regulatory process.

    › Immigration Reform

    The National Restaurant Association supports comprehensive federal immigration reform. An accurate and reliable employment verification system is part of the solution, but the solution must be broader. The NRA supports reforms that expand employers’ ability to hire a legal workforce and measures to give employers a way to hire legal foreign workers after they have made every reasonable effort to hire Americans.

    › Union Organizing

    The National Labor Relations Board (nlrb) in recent years has issued expansive rulings that favor labor interests, including regulations to speed union elections to 10 days and require all businesses to post notices advising employees of their right to organize. The National Restaurant Association and others in the business community have gone to courts to try to block some of the most harmful NLRB mandates. Although courts have largely sided with businesses so far, several cases remain pending.

    › Minimum Wage

    Restaurateurs face cost pressures from all sides, including uncertainty about the impact of the health-care law, rising food costs, and higher energy costs. Policymakers need to focus on expanding payrolls; they should not take steps that hurt employers’ ability to hire. Restaurants are a labor-intensive industry. Labor costs account for about a third of restaurant sales, pretax profit margins are around 3–5 percent, and profits per employee are low. Additional labor costs immediately affect an employer’s ability to maintain current jobs and hire new employees.

    › Menu Labeling

    The National Restaurant Association seeks maximum flexibility for the restaurant industry as the Food and Drug Administration develops regulations to implement a national standard for nutrition information on menus.

    › Food Safety

    The National Restaurant Association is preparing for the Food and Drug Administration’s release of a new Food Code in 2013. The NRA works to ensure that the Food Code reflects the latest scientific findings and best practices in restaurant food safety.

    › Food Waste

    With the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the NRA has taken a leadership role in the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, a cross-industry effort by restaurateurs, supermarkets, and grocers to define opportunities to reduce food waste, including through more composting and food-donation initiatives. As part of that effort, the NRA is lobbying Congress to encourage more food donation by extending the enhanced tax deduction for food donations by smaller corporations.

    Source: The National Restaurant Association,