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Opinion: Restaurants need modern solutions to modern issues

Opinion: Restaurants need modern solutions to modern issues

Richard Berman is an NRN contributor and president of Berman and Company, a Washington-based communications firm. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Nation’s Restaurant News.

Berman and Company president Richard Berman

There are some people who feel the restaurant industry is generally insulated from over-regulation because it’s an industry with an overwhelmingly positive profile. After all, the thinking goes, people like going to restaurants. But the restaurant industry isn’t invincible. In fact, it is continually under attack.

Consider, for example, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) pressures to unionize, or attacks on processed foods from overzealous food cops. Not to mention the barrage of attacks against food dyes, trans fats, saturated fats, sugar, sodium — the list goes on.

These pressures are fairly new. There was a time when the industry’s biggest issues were smoking bans, polystyrene food packaging in landfills, and dram shop — businesses that serve alcohol – insurance. These old concerns pale in comparison to the threat of the new crusades against antibiotic and hormone use in farming, labeling mandates and ever-increasing taxes that challenge the restaurant industry today.

But while attacks on the restaurant industry continue to take new shape, the industry finds itself increasingly ill equipped to fend off rapidly evolving external pressures. Old tools have become antiquated, but the industry continues to use traditional approaches to public policy advocacy and interest lobbying in a nontraditional world.

Take the rise of the “citizen journalist.” The power of viral communications informing public opinion is unprecedented. Today, a single blogger can take down companies or ruin brands. However, the restaurant industry often doesn’t have the proper infrastructure in place to address the explosion of new and unexpected issues, or the new ways in which these issues are being communicated.

Engaging in 21st century fights with outdated tools and mindsets is a prescription for bad outcomes. This industry’s greatest handicap is the belief that you can’t make a difference. Too many CEOs are only concerned about internal pressures that they can control, while hoping that someone else will take care of the external issues — the “hard stuff.”

Sure, people enjoy dining out and think well of our companies. But that’s a sentiment; it’s not a business strategy for fending off specific attacks. Ask yourself: What is the industry plan to engage public opinion on the big issues outlined above? Technology and social media are major developments and platforms shaping public opinion. What are we doing that demonstrates advanced thinking in that arena?

How much do you have at risk in 2015 when the minimum wage (to name just one) issue heats up in state legislatures? How much are you willing to bet that you won’t see $15 wage rates or the loss of more tip credits?

And, most importantly, what are we, or you, doing about it?

How do you respond to recent challenges to the restaurant industry? Join the conversation in the comments below.

The restaurant industry is one that has never had the regulatory burdens of transportation, insurance or energy, but there is no guarantee that this advantage will endure. Henry Ford once observed, “If you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”

We as an industry can and should do better.

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