It’s been years since New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman declared the world to be flat, with local industries deeply entangled in the global economy and vice versa. But the declaration is truer today than ever before for the National Restaurant Association (NRA), which has a broader reach thanks to the individual state restaurant associations serving members nationwide.
Organized leadership at the state and local levels serves its members in ways that the larger NRA cannot. Besides collaborating with their national counterpart to advance the foodservice industry, these organizations can be fertile ground for new ideas and programs. In California, the educational foundation expanded its targeted learning to connect high school students with foodservice professionals. In Texas, multiunit owners impart advice to smaller operators and vice versa.
The following five associations are as multifaceted as the states they serve, but each contributes to the larger conversation about the direction of foodservice.
California: The Innovator
It should come as no surprise that the California Restaurant Association (CRA) is the largest state restaurant association of the bunch. In addition to being the most productive agricultural state, California encompasses more than 90,000 restaurants and 1.6 million foodservice employees. Given its colossal size and geographic distribution, the Golden State is very diverse with different regions sporting different cuisines and restaurant scenes.
“You have so many different metropolitan centers in California that are almost like their own countries—they’re so different,” says CRA president and CEO Jot Condie. “I look at California kind of like people look at Italy, where you have these different regions.”
Northern California has a heavy farm-to-fork ethos, with cities like Sacramento and Oakland emerging as destinations for young chefs wanting to push the envelope in a more affordable environment. The booming population of Los Angeles makes for an exciting scene with its own retinue of homegrown chains, while points farther south like San Diego focus heavily on fish dishes.
The up-and-coming establishments are increasingly limited service. Condie says that a decade ago, 55 percent of the restaurants in California were full service; today, limited service accounts for 51 percent. The shift coincides with the rise of the “foodie” culture across the country.
“Our industry in California certainly used to be just an industry, and now we’re smack dab in the middle of pop culture. We’re a quasi-entertainment industry,” Condie says. “The foodies are growing every day. This rock star status we have, we’re taking that as a serious responsibility and being players in our communities.”
Indeed, to cover so much ground, the CRA has refined its lobbying tactics. Taking a page out of the union playbook, Condie says, the association targets city halls across the state rather than exclusively focusing on urban areas and state representatives, especially since the state legislature “is always cranking out laws that will keep any business person up at night.” Last November, San Francisco voted to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour and Los Angeles followed suit in June. Statewide, full-service operators are also required to pay minimum wage before tips.
By developing relationships with local officials, foodservice stays top of mind, Condie says. CRA and its educational foundation, CRAEF, also want to keep the industry top of mind for California residents, particularly its students. Like many state associations, CRA participates in ProStart—a specialized curriculum for high school students interested in foodservice—but the foundation took it a step further. CRAEF has an Enhanced ProStart in which it adopts low-funded high schools to enrich the ProStart program. Last year it launched Force in Training (fit) to fill in the soft skills gap in the program by connecting high school students with industry professionals. In its inaugural year, FIT connected 2,000 students at 33 schools with about 70 industry volunteers representing 42 brands, including McDonald’s, Jack in the Box, and Rubio’s.
“We have volunteers from all levels within an organization, from the franchisee to a local store team member, a regional operations directors, and an executive. It’s a nice combination of perspectives the students are gaining,” says Alycia Harshfield, executive director of CRAEF.
This year, FIT is aiming to reach 50 schools, she adds.
Texas: The Advocate
The Lone Star State is known for its independent—some might say rebellious—spirit, which also extends to its foodservice sector. Nevertheless, the Texas Restaurant Association (TRA) is more focused on collaboration and advocacy than confrontation.
“We always look at the legislature coming into town as an opportunity rather than a challenge to see what things we can fix, what we can improve, what can be done better,” says TRA CEO Richie Jackson. “We have tried to build an organization that can respond quickly and effectively.”
Months before the National Labor Relations Board granted unions extended negotiating rights with franchisors, the TRA helped push a bill through the Texas legislature that also empowered franchisees, but in a much different capacity. Under House Bill 1251, unemployment tax liability of the parent company would no longer be passed down to the franchisee. Jackson says that for these operators who are looking to grow by acquiring new corporate locations or existing units from another franchisee, liability costs at half a million dollars or so could stunt expansion.
And while much of Texas—a state boasting 27.7 million residents—is squarely pro-business, it is not homogenous in its ideology.
“It is a business-friendly environment, but we’ve got some very blue islands in a very red sea,” Jackson says. “When you look at San Antonio or Houston or Austin, those are not what you would traditionally call conservative-valued, business-oriented environments. We work to try to ensure that they stay business-friendly, and it does take work to do that.”
Earlier this year, the Austin city council considered legislation that would require barbecue restaurants to install smoke scrubbers—equipment that removes smoke smells and particles from the air emitted by wood or charcoal burning grills. Jackson says that in addition to such a proposal being a “little sacrilegious” for Texas barbecue, it would have exacted a hefty price on business operators. The Austin chapter of the association publicly opposed the proposal, which never made it out of committee.
True to the adage that everything is bigger in Texas, the TRA is composed of 23 chapters, and Jackson says that it’s not unusual to encounter 100–150-unit franchisees, given the sheer size of the state. He adds that the TRA aims to create opportunities for restaurateurs to network with one another, regardless of where they operate and how many units they own.
“It’s built on the personality of the individuals, not the number of units that anybody owns. I’ve seen someone with three units sitting down with somebody that’s got 50 or 60 units, and they have a great rapport and willingness to share with each other,” Jackson says. “And don’t ever think the person with 50 units can’t learn from the person with three. It happens every day.”
Illinois: The Powerhouse
The state that has long been home to the annual NRA Show also counts more than 529,000 of its residents in the foodservice trade—an industry that generates $23 billion in sales and is one of the largest private-sector employers.
“We’re obviously a big cog in the wheel of the Illinois economy,” says Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association (IRA). “Here in the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago, we feel that we’re the culinary capital of the United States.”
But Illinois is not content to rest on its laurels. This year, Chicago hosted the illustrious James Beard Awards—the first time in the event’s 25-year history that it was held in a city other than New York. Toia adds that on a per capita basis, Chicago has as many Michelin-star restaurants as New York City.
And although Chicago has long been a destination for foodservice professionals, Toia says it is also attracts culinary tourists, whose numbers are growing. Each year the Chicago Gourmet event showcases more than 200 restaurants and chefs at Millennium Park, and Toia believes it beats out culinary rivals, including the Pebble Beach Food & Wine and South Beach Wine & Food Festival.
For all the fanfare that Chicago and Illinois enjoy from industry professionals and foodie consumers, the IRA is dedicated to nurturing its unique ecosystem, from the enclave of celebrity chefs to local mainstays.
“We go after the celebrity chef community. We go after the iconic restaurants. We go after the neighborhood restaurants very, very strongly,” Toia says. “Instead of just having the chains and stuff like that, you’ve got to touch everything.”
The IRA also cultivates relationships with local and state legislators on both sides of the aisle. Over the past two years, it worked to lift the ban on happy hour, which had been in place since 1989; in July, it finally succeeded with the passage of the Culinary and Hospitality Modernization Act. That same bill also includes a mandate that retailers selling alcohol must undergo training as a provision of the newly lifted ban.
Quid pro quo deals notwithstanding, Toia emphasizes the importance of educating elected officials, many of whom do not realize that restaurants often operate on a 3–5 percent profit margin. The best way to connect them with foodservice providers, he says, is to show them examples in their own backyards.
“I come at it from a very pragmatic point of view. I look at the elected officials and I try to see what they have in their neighborhoods or in their districts,” Toia says. “You’re not always going to see eye to eye and agree on all issues, but it’s crucial to build those relationships and develop that mutual respect.”
Washington, D.C.: The Community Builder
Located in the heart of the nation and just two blocks from NRA headquarters, the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington (RAMW) breaks the mold in a number of ways. For one, it serves members in two states—parts of northern Virginia and western Maryland—as well as the District of Columbia. The urban nature of the greater Washington area also translates to fewer chains and more small business owners. RAMW president and CEO Kathy Hollinger says 85–95 percent of the restaurants in the area are independents.
“Fast casuals are clearly growing here in the region. Our membership is mostly the more homegrown, unique concepts,” Hollinger says. She also credits the region’s smaller size for the strong bond among its members. “We are a very close-knit community, and I think that is because of the geographic footprint.”
Still, serving members that fall under multiple municipal and state laws can be like walking a tightrope. Hollinger says that in some cases a regulation is stricter in D.C. than it is in Virginia and Maryland and vice versa. This dance is further complicated by the fact that many operators have locations across city and state lines.
Despite the challenges of covering multiple jurisdictions, RAMW once again enjoys a friendly neighbor in the form of the NRA after a brief time apart. In 2011, RAMW separated from the NRA when the latter introduced a provision that prohibited state associations from representing operators beyond their recognized borders. Since then, leadership at both organizations has changed; Hollinger started with RAMW in 2012 and very quickly began working with NRA president and CEO Dawn Sweeney to realign the groups.
Hollinger says the most significant change she has witnessed since the two associations reconnected is perspective.
“What they are dealing with nationally, inevitably it impacts us locally. … We work very, very closely together on policy, on education initiatives that are more community-building and industry-building initiatives,” Hollinger says. “It’s very easy for all of us to generalize how important perspective is, but when you’re really a part of a network of people who are doing what you’re doing every single day … it’s invaluable.”
RAMW’s relationship with other restaurant associations is hardly one-way. Its annual gala, the RAMMY Awards, has garnered attention from sister jurisdictions. The RAMMYs draw a crowd of about 2,000 restaurateurs and recognizes 22 categories, including “Favorite Fast Bites” and “Gathering Place.” The awards also spotlight individuals through chef, manager, and employee awards.
After 33 years worth of successful RAMMYs, Hollinger says, sister associations have called to ask for advice in launching similar awards in their home states.
“I think that’s fantastic, because that just speaks to how much notoriety it has received over the years and how it’s grown to be an exceptional gala that acknowledges the exceptional abilities and accomplishments of a fantastic industry,” she says.
New York: The Jack of All Trades
Like Chicago in Illinois, it would appear that the New York foodservice scene begins and ends in a single city. But smaller markets throughout western and upstate New York present opportunities for operators beyond the five boroughs. Melissa Fleischut, president and CEO of the New York State Restaurant Association (NYSRA), points out that oftentimes restaurants are the first to jumpstart an economically stagnant urban area.
“I think they do take the lead often in going into a neighborhood and helping to revitalize it,” Fleischut says. “Having a good business climate and a good economic development mentality is important. I know there’s been a large investment into bringing back the waterfront area in Buffalo.”
Maintaining a favorable business climate can be a challenge. New York City has a well-established reputation for passing socially progressive legislation well ahead of other cities and states. It banned trans fats in 2008, at least eight years before the now twice-delayed deadline from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Although a state court overturned the 2012 ban on large sugary drinks, the issue is far from resolved. Combine these issues with recent chatter around labeling high-sodium foods, and it’s no wonder that Fleischut cites ingredients—as well as the continuing minimum wage debate—as a top concern for the NYSRA.
“Maybe it’s not a direct attack on the restaurant industry, but it’s certainly going to impact us if they go after all the ingredients in the food one by one,” Fleischut says.
While Fleischut says she thinks ingredient restrictions should be something the FDA decides, she adds that the New York City Health Department did help the restaurant industry adapt to the trans fat ban by providing a hotline and other resources.
Because of the rapid legislative pace, NYSRA sends an almost daily e-mail, “Today in Politics,” to keep restaurateurs abreast of relevant news. Fleischut says it’s helpful given how legislation that starts in New York City “tends to travel up the Hudson to Albany and the state capitol.”
NYSRA also advocates for its members by lobbying at the local and city level, meeting with various agencies, and attending public affairs conferences. However, the needs of its members run the gamut. For example, many establishments in the Adirondacks are only open seasonally, and concepts that work well in western New York might not find success in New York City.
“Each area has its own unique flavor and its own different dynamic to the restaurant industry, so I think our diversity is one of the things that make us most unique,” Fleischut says.