Dawn Sweeney Gets Industry Back On Track

National Restaurant Association

After 18 years of consecutive growth, the restaurant industry's glory days came to a halt in 2007. Besides bad luck, the timing meant the CEO of the National Restaurant Association has had her work cut out for her since Day 1.

As soon as Dawn Sweeney joined the National Restaurant Association as president and CEO in October 2007, she was thrown into the fire and had to figure a way out.

That fire was, of course, the recession.

“After 18 years of consecutive growth [in the restaurant industry], I arrived at the time that that trend came to a distinct halt,” she says. “I have assured my board that there’s no correlation between those two things.”

Sweeney may have had nothing to do with causing the decline in sales in the restaurant industry, but she has ever since had the job on her hands of helping the industry get back on its feet.

“It has been one of the most challenging periods that our industry has faced in our many-decade history. So we had to identify what did the industry need from its association to navigate a crisis,” she says. “There was nowhere to go but up.”

The good news for Sweeney was that this challenging period didn’t give her a chance to dawdle over her new job but allowed her to “quickly get to grips with the economics of our industry and understand how to drive revenue and how we can get more people to eat out.”

With a background that includes 25 years of marketing, advocacy, and policy experience, including serving as president and CEO of AARP Services, Sweeney has the know-how to put her words into action. In fact, two years ago she was named one of the top association CEOs in the country.

“The economy has been a major challenge,” Sweeney says. “A lot of what we have done is to create the best possible environment for success.”

Encouraging Dining Out

“When things get better, which I think they’re starting to do now, people’s habits don’t shift back—they get used to bringing a pizza and a movie into the house instead of going out,” she says. “How do we work against that trend? That’s one thing I want to work on.”

At the same time as dealing with a downward economy, Sweeney was thrown head first into a strategic planning process with the NRA’s board. Her first nine months on the job were spent developing an ambitious roadmap for the restaurant industry.

In its strategic plan, the NRA focused on identifying the areas its members will need the most help with in the next four to five years. They came up with:

  1. Jobs and careers
  2. Food and healthy living, especially how to deal with obesity, even from a public relations perspective
  3. Profitability and entrepreneurship, specifically tax issues, depreciation, and aggregating buying power
  4. Sustainability and social responsibility. “Our industry is one of the most generous community citizens in the world yet we don’t get the recognition,” Sweeney says. She adds that the U.S. restaurant industry donates up to $3 billion per year to sustainability and social responsibility programs, yet it’s not getting proper recognition or awareness.

Since these four areas were created, Sweeney says the NRA has made progress in every area, especially in terms of healthy living.


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