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Regulation Nation: Execs debate industry effectiveness

Nation’s Restaurant News looks at the biggest legislative issues threatening your business and finds strategies for cutting through the red tape. Full report >>

Tom Boucher, chief executive and owner of Great New Hampshire Restaurants Inc. of Bedford, N.H., which owns eight restaurants operating under three brands, including T-Bones, Cactus Jack’s and Copper Door:

Boucher says the industry is doing enough.
I think the biggest challenge we have — and it’s also a positive attribute — is that we are the industry that puts America to work.

We are the industry that teaches people how to work. One out of every two people has worked in the restaurant industry in this country. One out of four had their very first job in this industry.

If you put that into perspective, we’re teaching people how to work. We’re teaching them responsibility. We’re teaching them how to show up on time and other very fundamental skills. We hope the public and the media perceives it that way. The thing that we run in to is that people will spin it that we are a low-paying industry. That may be true, but that’s because it may be a person’s first job.

But the other part of it is that it gets spun on pay. In our state a tipped employee gets paid $3.25 an hour. But that’s only the hourly wage. When you add in their tipped wages, our staff averages between $13 and $18 an hour. The mean is $16 an hour. That’s a pretty decent paycheck for someone who is working 30 hours a week and has flexibility in the schedule.

There are groups that want to paint us as a low-paying industry, and I say it’s just the opposite. We’re an industry of opportunity. Employees also have the potential of going from a starting-level job to owning a company, which is exactly what I did. Right out of college with my chemistry degree, I started waiting tables. Here, 28 years later, I own an eight-restaurant company in New Hampshire doing $30 million a year. I’m a perfect example of what can happen in this industry, going from an entry-level position to owning and growing businesses.

I’m a free-enterprise guy and believe in personal responsibility in how things should be legislated.

The National Restaurant Association has been very active in discussion with both the administration and Congress in shaping the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act rules. Part of what has happened is the law was passed, and it was upheld by the Supreme Court, and so now they are still detailing the rules that are in the statute itself. It’s a 19,000-page document that is a very, very complicated law.

One of the things that we have been doing is explaining to them the impact of things like, in particular, the 30-hour-a-week threshold for an employee being considered full-time equivalent. Many employees in our industry will work 32 hours a week and have a job somewhere else where they work 32 hours. Who would insure that person and how the auto-enrollment works for two different companies becomes complicated.

We’re appealing for some relief in this area because it’s going to affect a tremendous amount of the 13 million people in the U.S. restaurant industry. That burden seems to be shifting a lot onto the business owners. We think the definition for a full-time-equivalent employee should be those who work at least 40 hours per week. Those working 32 hours per week would fall under the purview of the exchange, which would then be the responsibility of governments.

This holds the biggest impact of anything on our industry in my 28 years. It’s a challenge, for sure.

I was asked to testify before a congressional subcommittee on the Affordable Care Act and the effect it would have on jobs. The NRA asked me to participate. It was a great experience. I think people on both sides of the aisle were listening to what the impact would be on restaurants and especially smaller-sized businesses.

Michael F. Jacobson responds: The industry can do more in regards to health and nutrition

Tom Boucher: The restaurant industry does enough by providing valuable work experience

Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has been scrutinizing restaurant menus since the 1980s:

Jacobson says the industry can do more.
There’s a huge amount the restaurant industry can be doing to improve nutrition. Some of it is easy. Some of it is hard.

It’s easy for me to say, but they should cut the salt — restaurant meals are very salty — use more whole grains, provide more dishes with fruits and vegetables, and try to move people toward more healthy beverages.

That’s a tough one because they make so much money on soda. One thing is with kids’ meals — they should have low-fat milk or water as the default beverages. Regular sodas shouldn’t be on the menu. A parent could demand it and get it, but people shouldn’t be encouraged to consider regular soda for kids.

Table-service restaurants typically serve bigger meals with a lot more calories and a lot more sodium. The Cheesecake Factory is the obvious offender there. Some of the meals are grotesque if you assume an individual is going to eat the whole meal.

I see it with chains more than independents. The big chains are working slowly at reducing sodium. Some of them are providing more healthful children’s meals. We’re seeing more salads in recent years.

For adding whole grains the easiest places are hamburger buns and pizza. Maybe it’s not 100-percent whole wheat — though that would be nice — but as much as they can put in without scaring off their customers.

They all want to make a profit. That’s why they are in the restaurant business. And they don’t want to do anything to jeopardize their products. So if they cut the salt too much, people would say, “It just doesn’t taste good.” So they have to do things quietly.

Brownish breads are strange to many people, so most restaurants just wouldn’t switch from white bread to whole-wheat bread for fear of losing customers. Obviously, they do have to think about that. They don’t live in some idealistic world. I’m sure they would like all their meals to be as healthy as possible, but they have different audiences, and most audiences like a lot of sugar and fat and salty foods. That’s typical American cuisine.

I think offerings have gotten more diverse, not necessarily better or worse. So people who are vegetarian or looking for salads or healthier meals have different options. Wendy’s had triple cheeseburgers back in the 1980s, as I recall, but those big, huge meals are now more available than they were. On the other hand, salads are also more available. For people who get milk, low-fat milk is more the standard now than it used to be.

Look at McDonald’s menu — it is so much broader than it used to be. Some of these chains have healthy sections on their menus.

Overarching, they could look at the nutritional values of their offerings, and then both add new dishes and reformulate their existing dishes. They could take an inventory of what they are doing, considering adding more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and reducing the use of salt and cheese. I suspect many independent restaurants still use partially hydrogenated oil for frying. They should get rid of it. A lot of the big chains certainly have gotten rid of it.

Do they really want to be part of the effort to promote health? Knowing that they have serious constraints, what can they do to encourage people to choose more healthful meals, and how can they make all of their offerings more healthful? Cutting the salt or adding whole grains are two easy ways, as is trimming soda size a little.

We don’t think restaurants should put themselves out of business by becoming vegan health-food cafes, but within their constraints there is a lot they can do. And they should make an effort.

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