Within the restaurant sector, the number of people of color at the corporate executive level is a low one. In 2020—as the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others ignited a nationwide response to systemic racism in countless U.S. industries and institutions—this fact resurfaced as a disappointment but not a shock.
“There was a time a few years ago when we had six African-American CEOs in the restaurant industry,” says Gerry Fernandez, president and founder of the Multicultural Food and Hospitality Alliance (mfha). “Now we only have one. In four years we’ve gone from six to [virtually] none.”
The foodservice industry is, in many areas, a diverse one. According to the National Restaurant Association, four in 10 restaurant managers and supervisors are minorities. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of Latino-owned restaurant businesses increased 51 percent, African American-owned restaurant businesses increased 49 percent, and Asian-owned restaurant businesses rose 18 percent.
But when it comes to corporate-level and leadership positions at major brands, the industry is still struggling with a lack of diversity. According to a 2015 report on minority and women entrepreneurs by economic policy initiative The Hamilton Project, restaurants owned by African-Americans and other people of color are more than three times as likely to be denied loans compared to white-owned concepts.
“In the restaurant industry, like many American industries, there is an institutionalized hurdle,” says Andra “AJ” Johnson, beverage director at Serenata and cofounder of DMV Black Restaurant Week in Washington, D.C. “My stance is that, in this industry, there is a lot of handing down of businesses and, historically, people of color have not been in ownership positions, and there is a lack of generational wealth.”
Lack of diversity is an issue that affects all sectors, despite the prediction by the U.S. Census Bureau that, by this year’s census, more than half of U.S. children will be part of a minority race or ethnic group.
As the American population becomes more diverse, customers will want to patronize businesses that reflect the diversity and inclusivity of their own experiences and values. Restaurants that aren’t working to diversify their leadership and overall staff are lagging behind customer expectations.
Both Fernandez and Johnson say part of the problem is existing leadership’s longtime doubt of the abilities of people of color. These perceptions, inaccurate as they are, can get in the way of corporate-level opportunities becoming available to minorities in the industry.
“There is a distrust and mistrust that people of color are able to handle leadership roles,” Johnson says.
Another culprit of the lack of C-suite diversity in the restaurant business today? Leaders who only consider their bottom line. Fernandez says this consideration isn’t enough and that diversifying staff is an intentional practice, especially for businesses with historically white leadership.
Even for those who are focused on revenues, diversifying can have positive financial returns. According to a 2018 study from Boston Consulting Group, “increasing the diversity of leadership teams leads to more and better innovation and improved financial performance.” The study also cites diversity’s direct positive effect on the bottom line, showing a 19 percent increase in revenues for businesses that actively prioritize inclusivity.
As a career choice, the restaurant industry is unique; its entry-level positions require little professional training, yet every experience from waitstaff up is something that can be built upon. Johnson says those who work hard and show potential can leverage the career ladder in restaurants. For example, talented team members are often able to obtain investment capital for their own concepts from those who funded their employers.
“People of color need to realize that it’s not servitude; it’s service,” she says. “This industry has a lot of upward mobility and a lot of opportunities. If we’re able to access that capital, instead of an ‘it’s who you know’ culture, it can lead to ownership.”
Fernandez says that any push toward inclusion has to be accompanied by programs for mentoring, coaching, and development to be successful. And, while a commitment to diversity can be a challenge to kick-start, these intentional efforts are crucial to the survival of the restaurant industry—particularly at this moment in history.
“We have to have the tough conversations,” Fernandez says. “Those include sharing best practices, putting a strategy together, and collaborating on how we can bring education, training, and mentoring to the mid-level, early-career professionals out in the field.”
While changes don’t happen overnight, these types of initiatives are a way to ensure that people of color aren’t being put into C-suite positions simply as token diverse employees or as figureheads.
“It’s something our industry needs to do a better job of,” Fernandez says. “If companies make a commitment to be more purposeful and intentional developing and advancing people of color, we’ll have companies and an industry that are great for all people.”