Starbucks made waves in March when it launched a campaign in which the slogan “Race Together” adorned its cups. The move was intended to spark a discussion about race and diversity among employees and customers.

Starbucks’ campaign ended shortly after it started; critics thought the initiative was a shallow attempt at advertising. Still, the conversation around race and ethnicity shows no signs of dissipating. A diverse workforce is especially crucial within the foodservice industry, which employs more minority managers than any other industry, according to the National Restaurant Association (NRA).

Gerry Fernandez, president of the Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance (MFHA), says if Starbucks’ much-maligned campaign increased conversations about diversity in foodservice, it did its job. “If it got people to think or talk more about race, ethnicity, and culture, then it was a success,” he says.

Fernandez founded the MFHA in 1996, and while he believes the restaurant work pool has become more multicultural since then, that diversity will accelerate even quicker in the next several years, he says.

“Millennials are perfectly willing to embrace diversity,” he says. “If your company is not doing this well, it will no longer just affect you with minority groups, but with white males and females.”

Fernandez adds that employee diversity isn’t merely the right thing to do, but rather something companies must embrace to succeed financially.

“The one color that means the most in this country is green,” he says. “If you want to make money, save money, and reduce costs, you have to understand multicultural differences.”

The MFHA’s 2014 industry report indicated that limited-service restaurants are leading the way when it comes to workforce diversity. The survey, conducted in partnership with intelligence provider People Report, asked 22 questions of 60 companies representing 90 brands. Included were 24 limited-service companies. In the report, 57 percent of limited-service restaurants reported having a diversity statement, compared with 37 percent of full-service restaurants. Fifty percent of limited-service restaurants surveyed reported having a designated person leading diversity efforts, compared with 29 percent in full service. The most striking difference involved diversity training for hourly employees: 60 percent of limited-service restaurants provided it versus only 26 percent of full-service establishments.

The NRA established the Faces of Diversity awards to recognize diversity within the industry by singling out exceptional individuals from different ethnic and racial backgrounds. Jahangir Kabir, one of the 2014 recipients, is a district supervisor for White Castle. He says communication and education are key in maintaining diversity in the workplace.

“You have to be mindful of certain drawbacks of a diverse workforce,” he says. “People from different backgrounds have different opinions and might not get along. It’s not just about hiring numbers. You must provide cultural training among team members.”

For example, team members may not understand why a Muslim team member would request extra breaks during Ramadan to handle fatigue caused by fasting. Cultural training could minimize any friction this might cause, Kabir says.

“It’s worth the effort and can add dollars to a restaurant owner’s bottom line because when you have a happy workforce, productivity goes up,” he says. “Customers see a happy workforce who takes care of them well and they come back.”

Eva Martin, owner-operator of three McDonald’s restaurants in Las Vegas and a 2013 Faces of Diversity finalist, adds that it’s critical for employees to understand the value that they bring to the company regardless of their background or race.

“It’s a win-win for everyone,” Martin says. “When we have a meeting and are brainstorming, we all put our thoughts and ideas together, and the good rises to the top. Diversity makes everyone better. It’s good for the brand and it’s good for employees.”

She says diversity also benefits customers, who notice when employees respect and value each other. “They feel the warmth or the ice and we want them to walk into a warm and inviting place,” she says.

Fernandez says the numbers in the MFHA diversity report didn’t change much between 2007 and 2014, but he believes the pace of change is starting to accelerate. He says his organization has received an uptick in calls from foodservice professionals who want to train their employees in handling circumstances where off-color statements or racial remarks arise.

“Everything ends up in the restaurants,” Fernandez says. “Customers talk about issues, employees talk about issues, and sometimes they don’t use the right words. People are not equipped to talk about cross-cultural issues.”

The MFHA report shows the highest diversity among hourly employees is found in the foodservice industry, with 50.4 percent being ethnic or racial minorities. But that number drops to 44 percent for assistant managers, 31 percent for general managers, and only 12 percent for corporate directors.

People can become frustrated by the topic of race, and company leaders want to make sure they are doing the best thing to protect their brand, Fernandez says. Despite the challenges, he sees increasing employee diversity as a positive opportunity for the foodservice industry.

“There have been good success stories out there,” Fernandez adds. “And if you get started now, you’re still ahead of the curve.”

Employee Management, Story