The National Restaurant Association’s president and CEO will highlight the organization’s current initiatives and explain how it’s helping the restaurant industry get back on its feet in 2021.
To say the nation’s restaurant industry had a tough year in 2020 would be a major understatement. Gut punched by the COVID pandemic, subsequent shutdowns, and shifting customer preferences, hospitality-focused organizations came into 2021 with new hope for the future and a resolve to overcome the challenges placed before them.
As the largest foodservice trade association in the world, the National Restaurant Association faced these challenges alongside the 500,000 businesses that it represents and advocates on behalf of. For 2021, NRA president and CEO Tom Bené says the first order of business will be to get more stimulus assistance for an industry hit hard by the pandemic.
“The restaurant industry has been devastated and by no fault of its own,” says Bené. He adds that the association was glad to see the second batch of PPP funds released in December, but that it won’t be “nearly enough to support the industry during this period.”
In addition to seeking additional funding, the association has been working on key issues like reopening guidance and ensuring that operators have the tools and support needed to safely reopen.
Through a partnership known as the “ServSafe Dining Commitment,” the NRA has been working with several large product brands to help educate consumers on how safe restaurant dining is, and encourage them to come back and see for themselves.
“We’ve also been working with our members on programs to accelerate their takeout and delivery services, and partnering with other organizations on initiatives like ‘Cocktails To Go,’” Bené explains. “It’s all in the name of helping restaurants survive while also trying to drive additional financial support for them through the legislative process.”
Answering the Call
The National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, the association’s philanthropic arm, raised about $22.5 million through its Restaurant Employee Relief Fund in 2020. Those funds were distributed in the form of grants to employees who were impacted (financially or by another hardship) during the early stages of the pandemic. “We gave out a total of 46,000 grants,” Bené says.
The Foundation also provides scholarships and apprenticeship opportunities for individuals interested in a career in the restaurant industry. In January, for example, the application process for this year’s Educational Foundation Scholarship Program opened up. “These are just a few of the Foundation initiatives that are designed to support workforce development,” Bené says.
Along with its traditional food safety and food safety development training certification, the association now offers career- development programs for restaurant and hospitality managers (both online and in-class). It also offers free courses on how to reopen a restaurant, operate that restaurant, and handle pandemic-centric conflicts (e.g., customers who refuse to wear masks). “We came up with training courses on how to deal with these types of situations,” says Bené, “and de-escalate them before they turn into major issues.”
Working Toward Diversity
A part of the association since 2019, the Multicultural Food Service and Hospitality Alliance (MFHA) helps to create opportunities for underrepresented groups to move up in the restaurant industry via tangible initiatives. Its key points of focus include creating leadership pathways; supporting communities (both geographic and people/groups); business and ownership development; and expanding representation at the board of directors and C-suite levels industrywide.
“I would argue that the restaurant industry has done better than most, at least in our overall representation,” says Bené. “However, there are always opportunities for improvement. Not only is the NRA taking a leadership role and making sure that we reflect the desired industry look and feel, but we’ll also be working with our members and others in the industry to build that out over the next couple of years.”
Addressing Changing Industry Needs
In assessing the core needs of the restaurant operator and how those needs have evolved over the last year, Bené says the association wants to make sure available financial resources come with a level of flexibility. The first round of PPP funds, for example, didn’t cover important investments like plastic shields, outdoor domes, PPE, and other innovations that have allowed them to stay open and generate at least some revenue during the pandemic.
“As the industry continues to work its way through this, restaurant operators continue to evolve their models. They need support in that regard and not just financial, but they look to groups like ours to also help them navigate those complexities,” says Bené. The association, he adds, is partnering with government agencies like the EPA, FDA, USDA, and CDC to ensure that the “guidelines put in place are also supporting the restaurant industry.”
As restaurants continue to hone their models around these complexities, some are expanding their takeout operations while others are exploring options like ghost kitchens. Bené says the organization is supporting its members along these journeys, which frequently require partnerships with food equipment distributors and other suppliers. Knowing this, he expects organizations like FEDA to play a key role both in the recovery process and the post-COVID environment.
“We’ve seen some great examples of distributors offering more flexibility during this time, and also helping our members rethink their physical footprints and the required equipment,” says Bené. “In some cases, the answer lies in multi-purposing equipment in a way that not only allows operators to serve within their four walls, but also expand their delivery businesses.”
Learn more about the NRA, its members’ needs and new partnerships during the Learn 2021 opening session on May 11 at 10:30 a.m. CDT.