In early January,National Restaurant Association  president and chief executive Steven C. Anderson disclosed that the NRA’s membership last year had reached a record 380,000 restaurant locations, an increase of nearly 73 percent since 1999. Fully 5,000 locations were added to the roster of NRA members in 2006 alone.
Such statistics should not be surprising, given the NRA’s continuing role as the leading voice of the industry’s body politic and principal advocate and figurehead for foodservice businesses. Augmenting those roles is the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, an NRA offshoot that serves as a primary source for the training and education of foodservice professionals.
“Together with the NRAEF, the NRA represents, educates and promotes a $537 billion industry with a 12.6-million-strong workforce,” Anderson says. “As we grow, we will continue to provide services that respond to the [requirements] of this ever-expanding [market].”
In recent years, the NRA has played an increasingly large part in shaping the evolution of independents and chains alike from an operational standpoint. That is occurring primarily through the harnessing of resources to assist members in stepping up to the plate in response to changing customer needs and marketing trends. One prime example is the association’s collaboration with the San Diego-based Healthy Dining Program, a private company that has been evaluating the nutritional content of restaurant meals since 1990, and whose nutrition experts help chefs and restaurateurs create dishes that emphasize lean proteins, fruits, vegetables and whole grains. In March the program, in cooperation with the NRA as co-developer, is scheduled to debut
The cost of participating in the online program varies depending on the size of an operation and whether it requires assistance with nutritional analysis of its fare. But members of the NRA and state restaurant associations, as well as American Express merchants, receive a 20-percent discount.
For the fee, restaurateurs can promote four to 10 menu items with corresponding nutritional information, along with a general paragraph about their operations, the addresses and phone numbers of all of their locations, and links to maps and directions to individual stores. The consumer referral service also makes available such options as printable coupons and links to operators’ websites.
Other perks for participants include tool kits of strategies and tips for increasing business by promoting healthy menu options; window-display certificates of recognition for participating in the program; and authorization to use the website’s logo.
Another case in point is the partnership the NRA has forged with FishBowl, a leading permission-based e-mail marketing service based in Alexandria, Va. Initiated late last year, the partnership affords NRA members exclusive rates on a turnkey service geared to independent and small-chain operators.
The system enables automated loyalty e-mails to welcome customers and recognize their birthdays and anniversaries; unlimited e-mail campaigns; and access to a restaurant-focused design and content library.
The cost to members is $99 for setup, plus $179 for a first location and $134 for additional locations.
“Online marketing continues to gain popularity as a way for restaurants to attract business and serve customers,” Anderson says. “As such, the NRA considers the FishBowl partnership a win for operators and a win for the association.”
Initiatives undertaken through the educationally oriented NRAEF seek to bolster the NRA’s efforts to strengthen restaurateurs’ operations. Ongoing, periodic refinements and enhancements of the popular ServSafe and ServSafe Responsible Alcohol Service training programs top the list of NRAEF offerings, but other programs also are gaining prominence. The NRAEF recently replaced its ProMgmt program with one dubbed ManageFirst. It places emphasis on several competencies identified by more than 200 academics, operators, hiring managers and executives, such as interpersonal communication, ethics and accounting.
Additionally, ManageFirst awards a credential to students who prove their preparedness for industry success by earning certificates in several areas, including hospitality and restaurant management, controlling foodservice costs, human resources management and supervision, ServSafe food safety, and menu marketing and management. Students also are required to document industry-related work experience.
Yet the NRA’s influence on the industry clearly extends beyond impacting the business of individual operators. The association also wields clout in propelling forward policies and legislation that would benefit restaurants as well as in attempting to quash threatening measures. Such efforts begin at the grassroots level with the association’s GO-Network, a force of several thousand politically active restaurateurs who strive to formulate or refine legislation and showcase the industry to policy makers.
A new addition to the NRA’s roster of Executive Study Groups focuses on such licensing and compliance issues as liquor, health, tax and business registration, and various permits. The red-tape-oriented study group seeks to engage state and local authorities in discussions about policies that affect restaurant operations.
The NRA’s political action committee strives to support pro-restaurant candidates in elections and reinforce the industry’s influence in the nation’s capital.
Among the association’s most recent successes was its drive to obtain lawmakers’ support for the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act. Informally dubbed the “Cheeseburger Bill,” H.R. 554 would prevent consumers from filing lawsuits that allege an operator’s food had made them obese. The bill passed in the House by a 306-120 margin in October 2005.
The Commonsense Consumption Act, S.908, is a similar bill that is pending in the Senate, and the NRA has launched a campaign to garner support for that legislation.
Despite the NRA’s overall influence, it cannot operate in a vacuum, and Anderson emphasizes that the involvement of independents and chains alike is necessary to marshal the organization’s power. “Our mission is threefold: to represent, educate and promote,” he says. “We are here to serve as the voice of the industry, but by lending your own voice and sharing your story, our combined messages will resonate loudly and clearly.”