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Q&A: National Restaurant Association CEO Dawn Sweeney on leadership in the restaurant industry

6 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

Dawn Sweeney (Photo: National Restaurant Association)

For many people, the restaurant industry is a doorway into the working world — one in three adults report that their first job was in a restaurant. For some, that job leads to a life-long career. In a recent workforce survey of U.S. restaurant workers, the National Restaurant Association found that 88% of restaurant workers were proud to work in the industry, and 70% said they would likely continue to work in the industry until they retire.

SmartBrief talked to NRA President and CEO Dawn Sweeney about how restaurants help employees rise through the ranks and what it takes to be a leader in the industry.

According to the NRA Educational Foundation’s workforce study, seven out of ten restaurant employees say they will likely continue working in the industry until they retire. What can restaurant companies do to help employees rise through the ranks?

The industry is honestly doing a great job of this already. The same study revealed that more than 9 in 10 managers, supervisors and chefs started out in entry-level positions in restaurants, as did 77% of restaurant owners and operators. I know quite a number of restaurant CEOs who began as dishwashers or bussing tables, and there are millions of people earning solid, middle-class incomes in the restaurant industry. We say that restaurants are building ladders to the American Dream and the industry has demonstrated this and is deeply committed to continuing to build successful and rewarding careers for millions.

Restaurants are truly flexible workplaces and offer an enormous range of career options. These aren’t just in kitchens or in the front of the house, though we see solid careers there too, of course — but from accountants to quality-assurance experts to human resources professionals, the industry is a juggernaut of employment that is vital to our economy. And, as purveyors of the American Dream, this industry offers anyone willing to work hard an opportunity to have a life-long career.

Through the NRA Educational Foundation, we’re also working through the Department of Labor to build the first national workforce competency model specifically for the restaurant and foodservice sector to chart the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to succeed and rise through the ranks of our industry. This will help provide a framework for and consistency in how the restaurant industry can identify and build talent.

Forty-two percent of restaurant owners say they started their business from scratch. How does the NRA help restaurateurs succeed in building their business from the ground up?

We offer a range of services to help operators manage the complexities of running a restaurant. In fact, we’ve invested significant time and effort into developing and vetting a variety of tools and support systems to help our members achieve better operating results.

Our leading-edge industry research and reports equip our members with the critical information they need to make important decisions about their businesses. Our national programs, like ServSafe, set the standard for food safety training and help reduce our members’ risk and liability. Through resources like Manage My Restaurant we provide restaurateurs with operational “how to” expertise on marketing, workforce management, food cost, nutrition and back-of-the-house operations. Our services are designed to help to improve both the top and bottom lines for our members.

Our offers complement the advocacy work that is our main focus. Ultimately, an association like ours must make a national-level impact to help its members. So we advocate for legislation and regulations that will benefit the industry — be it in tax policy, nutrition standards, federal health care rules, or any of the dozens and dozens of issues that our members deal with daily.

The restaurant industry has outpaced the overall U.S. economy in job growth for 14 years. What makes job growth in the industry so robust?

The easiest answer is our customers. People enjoy dining outside the home — in fact, about nine in 10 consumers say they enjoy eating in restaurants. Year after year, our research shows that people wish they could eat out more. That’s a great problem to address from our perspective!

This year we expect our workforce to top 13.5 million, and in the next decade we expect to add another 1.3 million jobs. That’s great for us but it’s also great for the national economy.

We’re also a first employer, with one out of three adults reporting their very first job was in the restaurant industry. This means restaurants are the place where valuable job skills are learned. Many stay in the industry for a lifetime, but even if you don’t, you can look back on an industry job as the place where you learned time management, customer service and other important professional behaviors.

Half of former restaurant employees, and even 38% of people who have never worked in a restaurant, say they would like to own a restaurant someday. What is your advice for aspiring restaurateurs?

Remember that it’s a business and needs to be approached as one. Of course, you need a passion for the work and the drive to put in long hours, but you also need a sound business plan and solid financial backing. Profit margins are very low and there will be sleepless nights and struggles ahead. Your success will be well-earned!

The industry is also full of people eager to help you — be it with a few useful tips based on years of hands-on experience, or a referral to a reliable produce distributor. And the State Restaurant Associations are always ready with advice and assistance.

Don’t go it totally alone! We really do work in the “Spirit of Hospitality” at the NRA, and we welcome you from the start.

What does it take to be a leader in the restaurant industry?

Leadership in any industry relies on vision and commitment. In an industry like ours, you must also genuinely like working with and serving other people. Our teams and our customers are critical to our success — our business models must be community-based.

At the National Restaurant Association we’re dedicated to having our work exemplify the “Spirit of Hospitality.” That spirit is the heart of the restaurant industry and a necessary ingredient for successful leadership.


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