A Century of Service

Dawn Sweeney has served as the National Restaurant Association’s president and CEO since 2007.

As the National Restaurant Association and its popular annual trade show celebrate their 100-year anniversary, Dawn Sweeney, the association’s president and CEO, discusses challenges faced by the industry, as well as its importance to the U.S. economy.

By Sara Perez Webber

In 1917, U.S. egg brokers tried to demand a price of 65 cents a dozen—a move protested by the year-old Kansas City Restaurant Association, which organized a successful egg boycott in response. Egg prices plummeted to 32 cents a dozen. Recognizing that there’s strength in numbers, the Kansas City restaurateurs expanded their reach; they launched a nationwide organization in 1919, holding the first meeting of what is today the National Restaurant Association, which then represented an industry of 43,000 restaurants.

A century later, the National Restaurant Association is still going strong, as is the restaurant industry. There are more than a million restaurants in the U.S., more than 15 million restaurant employees, and the industry’s projected sales last year were $825 billion.

The association will be celebrating its centennial with several festivities at its annual National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago in May. To find out about the latest initiatives from the association, and get her take on the state of the industry in 2019, Catering Magazine recently interviewed Dawn Sweeney, who’s served as the National Restaurant Association’s president and CEO since 2007.

CM: As the National Restaurant Association celebrates its 100th anniversary, what are the primary benefits that such a strong and robust industry association brings to its members?

SWEENEY: As we celebrate our centennial anniversary, the restaurant industry is now the nation’s second-largest private-sector employer and serves more than 170 million customers daily. Our association works closely with lawmakers at the local, state and federal levels to advocate for our members and promote policies that will keep our industry strong and profitable. At the same time, we are pushing back on burdensome legislation that could be harmful to business.

Our people are our greatest asset, and at the association, we are identifying and implementing solutions that attract, empower and advance our industry’s workforce. Those solutions include numerous best-in-class training and certification programs in food handling, culinary education and workforce development. Additionally, we have teamed up with UnitedHealthcare to offer an Association Health Plan that provides our members an opportunity to offer their employees comprehensive health insurance options. Through these programs, and many more, we are dedicated to providing our members with another 100 years of growth and success.

The National Restaurant Association is celebrating 100 years of its popular trade show.

CM: What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the restaurant industry since you took the helm at the National Restaurant Association in 2007?

SWEENEY: A few things in particular stand out: First, technology in the front and back of the house has changed significantly. Consumers are busier, and at the same time savvier—especially about mobile technology. They get their information online about where to dine, make reservations and order food ahead of time, all on their smartphones. Today’s successful restaurant owners and operators can pair efficiency and accuracy with a great dining experience. Off-premise traffic, including third-party delivery, has dramatically changed the industry ecosystem in the last few years. Nearly
40 percent of adults say they are more likely to order delivery today than they were two years ago. Technology has broadened the opportunities for restaurants to better serve customers and to invite in new ones. Amidst these changes, our industry’s commitment to service and hospitality will remain constant.

CM: What are the most difficult challenges facing the restaurant industry today?

SWEENEY: Employee recruitment and retention are at the top of the list. Today, we have approximately 900,000 available jobs in the industry. The National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation continues to lead the charge in attracting and preparing people from all backgrounds for meaningful jobs and careers in our industry. Last year, in partnership with the White House, we pledged to train 370,000 people over the next five years. This national jobs initiative includes ProStart [the association’s nationwide two-year high school program], the Registered Apprenticeship program, Restaurant Ready [which connects underserved youth to the restaurant industry], scholarships and military programs [to provide training programs and career support for members of the U.S. military].

CM: Considering the association’s focus on career enhancement, with ProStart and professional development initiatives, what is the outlook on job growth in the restaurant and catering industries?

SWEENEY: The industry will need to fill 1.6 million jobs over the next 10 years, with 640,000 of those employees coming from the Gen Z labor pool. To ensure we fill those positions with the best candidates, we have started our industry’s first-ever Hospitality Sector Registered Apprenticeship program, operated by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation. By year-end, we project that 1,500 apprentices will be registered. Additionally, the 2018/2019 school year represents significant expansion for ProStart. With our state association partners, we grew the program from 1,800 schools to 1,905 and increased enrollment from 140,000 students to nearly 148,000—a 7 percent increase year-over-year. We remain aggressive in our workforce development initiatives.

The National Restaurant Association is celebrating 100 years of its popular trade show.

CM: Overall, what is the state of the restaurant industry in the United States?

SWEENEY: The state of our industry is strong. Sales continue to grow at a modest pace, and restaurants are expected to contribute in excess of $850 billion to the country’s economy this year. In a recent Gallup poll of the top 25 industry sectors in the U.S., the restaurant industry follows only the computer industry as the most well-regarded by the American public. Additionally, nine in 10 Americans report that they enjoy eating out in a restaurant. Those statistics are solid indicators that the industry is in step with consumer demand and sentiment.

The National Restaurant Association Show 2019 takes place May 18-21 at McCormick Place in Chicago. The industry’s largest trade show—attracting more than 63,000 attendees—features more than 100 events over four days. This year’s show will be highlighted in three exhibit halls, with curated areas throughout the show floor dedicated to emerging technologies, unique ingredients and shifting trends; demos with celebrity chefs, including Rick Bayless and Andrew Zimmern; hundreds of experts leading educational sessions; and much more. For more information, visit nationalrestaurantshow.com.