Pitfalls and misperceptions
Part of overcoming the diversity gap lies in changing how the restaurant industry is viewed. Foodservice is rarely seen as a long-term, viable career; instead, it’s a means to an end or a temporary holdover. And this perspective is often reinforced by very real factors, like low wages and high turnover.
“Foodservice has some of the lowest barriers to entry, … so naturally there’s a lot more access and open opportunities at the restaurant level. And in a lot of ways, foodservice is a stepping stone for people in a very wide range of circumstances,” says Christian Lee, head of business operations for Southern California–based Flame Broiler. “A lot of these employees get stuck in the cycle of these minimum-wage jobs with little to no upward mobility.” And because foodservice, particularly fast food, can be such a revolving door, leaders are less likely to invest in their employees, Lee adds. Like retail, restaurants are a job magnet for students and teens seeking part-time work or people in transitory stages. While the industry may pride itself on being the first job of so many people, it’s a bragging point that’s often at odds with long-term retention. Some on-the-ground employees may grow to be shift leaders, supervisors, or even store managers, but they rarely ascend to the corporate office. As Lee points out, that’s a separate entry point altogether.
“Traditionally the kind of leadership positions at these companies have been taken by people with a certain socioeconomic or educational background or privilege,” he says. “I think that causes a lot of inequity when it comes to diversity in the workforce versus the senior leadership.”
Indeed, four out of the five CEOs of the largest quick-service brands in the U.S. (per the QSR 50) built careers in various business sectors ranging from pharmaceuticals and tech to apparel and consumer packaged goods. The only one to have worked exclusively in foodservice is fresh-to-the-role Chick-fil-A CEO Andrew Cathy, grandson of the late founder Truett Cathy, who took over in November. Connecting the pipeline of talent from the stores to the corporate office could help foster diversity across all levels of a restaurant company. And while initiatives, like Chipotle’s, that encourage internal promotions are bridging the gap, part of the issue stems from much larger societal issues. It doesn’t absolve restaurant leaders of responsibility in changing their inner workings. If anything, it should embolden them to be part of the solution.
Florida-based chain BurgerFi is one company that’s leading by example when it comes to DEI at the top levels. Ever since the brand went public last December, it’s made a deliberate push to boost diversity across all teams.
Traci Copeland, former vice president of human resources for BurgerFi (she's now Director of Human Resources as Myles Restaurant Group), says previous leadership was not reflective of the rest of the company—but that has since changed. Now three women, one of whom is Hispanic, sit on the board of directors. On the executive team, both CEO Julio Ramirez and CMO Henry Gonzalez are Hispanic, and Copeland is a biracial woman. Women do not yet hold any of the “chief” titles, and, Copeland says, therein lies an opportunity to do more in the future. “Our guests and our society are increasingly diverse. It only makes sense that brands incorporate diversity into their leadership to effectively relate and engage with their consumers,” she says. “We’re proud to be on the forefront of the industry in terms of the diversity at our board of directors level and will continue to enhance diversity in our C-suite and in the field.”
Seeing leaders of different races and backgrounds goes a long way in making employees feel included and inspiring them to rise through the ranks. It can also galvanize fellow quick-service brands to follow suit and even open the door to discussions around best practices. The more leaders share their own experiences and insights, the more the industry as a whole can evolve.
“As leaders, we need to continue to share our stories to help educate each other and understand how different groups, whether regarding race, nationality, gender, or sexual orientation, can impact the success of our business,” Copeland says.