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SmartSummit: Fighting racism through the food and hospitality industries

Last week, experts gathered at SmartBrief’s Food & Beverage SmartSummit to discusswhat actions the industry take to make meaningful contributions to diversity, equity and inclusion.

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SmartSummit: Fighting racism through the food and hospitality industries

(Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels)

Last week, experts gathered at SmartBrief’s Food & Beverage SmartSummit, “What will it take? Fighting racism through the food and hospitality industries,” to discuss the role the industry plays in fighting racism, what actions the industry take to make meaningful contributions to diversity, equity and inclusion, and how businesses can get started on a DEI strategy that will affect real change.

Food and hospitality in general have always brought people together, and enabled people to experience, share and celebrate cultural differences. And as a business, workplace and industry, food and hospitality have always been fields that have been more accessible to many immigrants and people of color to obtain work in. According to the National Restaurant Association, 40% of restaurant managers and supervisors and 60% of chefs are people of color, and by 2030, it estimates that people from multicultural backgrounds, and women, will hold a larger proportion of the industry’s upper-management jobs. 

In hospitality, almost 57% of people working in the hotel industry are Black, according to Castell Project’s 2021 Black Representation in Hospitality Leadership report, yet they only make up 1.6% of executives at the director level or above.

“The role of foodservice and hospitality industries in fighting racism is huge — it’s very, very important,” Apoorva Gandhi, vice president of multicultural affairs and business councils for Marriott International, said during the event. Marriott operates over 7,000 locations across the world, many of which include restaurants and foodservice operations, which allows Gandhi to look at it from a variety of perspectives, he said.

“It all fundamentally comes down to the notion of welcoming all and welcoming all with cultural competence,” he added. “And a way that we can fight racism is through our example, our example of welcoming all, no matter of who you are, where you come from, what your abilities are or who you love. By showing that word, ‘welcome,’ that’s what hospitality is all about.”

Tawanda Starms, vice president of talent and culture for Chipotle Mexican Grill, agreed, adding that the foodservice chain aims to make sure it’s creating trusting spaces for people to be able to learn and grow.

“For us, it starts with our purpose, which is cultivating a better world,” she said during the event. “And it starts also with our values, and the value I think about in particular is ‘authenticity lives here’ — we want everyone to be able to be who they are, love who they love — we want to make sure that we’re championing them in all those facets.”

The industry can also fight racism through providing opportunity, Starms pointed out. Chipotle offers debt-free education and tuition reimbursement, and has also created a training academy with online courses that teach a wide range of skills, from conflict resolution to setting goals, with the aim of helping employees of all backgrounds climb the corporate ladder.

“When you think about structural racism, you think about the systems that are created to keep from generating wealth, or to keep people from getting ahead,” she said. “I think at Chipotle Mexican Grill in particular, and in the industry, a lot of the opportunity is through wealth creation as well as opportunities for folks to better themselves through educational opportunities or even entrepreneurial opportunities.”

Gerry Fernandez, president of the Multicultural Foodservice and Hospitality Alliance, called for the industry to take a look at existing practices, like unconscious hiring bias and assessments that have bias built in, and change them.

“As long as you continue to use practices that favor one [group of people] over another, you’re contributing to the structural racism challenge, so we have to be active participants in dismantling these things that we know create a favorable situation for one group over another,” he said. “I think the industries have to do a better job to start peeling back the onion and say, ‘okay, if the bias is showing up in this assessment, let’s get rid of that. Where else in the system are men favored over women, or people of one race or another race are discounted over someone else?’”

All three panelists stressed the fact that DEI is everyone’s job, that it’s important to make sure those efforts are not “living and breathing with one person,” as Starms put it.

It’s not just one person who assumes responsibility, it’s our responsibility to embed it in everything we do, in every learning course, to every policy, to every practice,” she said. “It’s everyone’s job. It’s who we are because it’s part of our culture.”

SmartBrief conducted a survey in May to gauge the sentiments of people working in the food and hospitality industries about the state of diversity and inclusion initiatives in businesses today — when asked about barriers to introducing DEI initiatives in their companies, survey respondents said they thought that cost, time, lack of interest or passion, and unclear goals were all equal barriers, with time being the most cited. An equal number of people said that there are no barriers.

Both Starms and Gandhi said that while there can be perceived barriers, DEI work should be baked into the company and people’s jobs, and not be something in addition to, or on the side.

“You should contrast [perceived barriers] to what the lost opportunity is, and I would say the cost and time is going to be worse if you don’t focus on this,” Gandhi said, giving examples of the cost of lost employees or employees who leave and then having to go back and find and retrain people, and the time sunk into retraining people or trying to work with people to have them feel better about working at your company.

Fernandez cited fear, ignorance and the lack of data and external pressure as obstacles that he has seen the industry encounter in the past in addressing DEI.

“Culture change is hard. Really hard,” he said. “If you have no pressure to make change, you don’t make change.”

To get started on DEI efforts that will affect meaningful change, panelists agreed that companies, no matter the type of size, need to be intentional about purpose and figuring out what they stand for. From there, it’s important to get feedback from employees, give them opportunities to learn along the way and create measurable goals.

Efforts made by mature companies like Marriott and Chipotle also need to be talked about and shared, because while those companies have the infrastructure in place to support initiatives, smaller companies need examples as guidance on how to get started, Fernandez pointed out.

“High tide raises all boats — it’s tough work for people who are just getting started, don’t have a lot of resources or don’t have the information,” Fernandez said. “We need to help those folks because our industry as whole would be better off if we do that.”

To watch the event in its entirety and hear more insights from these experts on diversity in the food and hospitality industries, access the SmartSummit on demand.

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