Companies like Levy are incorporating a more diverse set of leaders—and reaping the rewards.

With the face of America evolving and the landscape set up for an even more diverse population in the decades to follow, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that restaurants are following suit.

From on-the-ground employees and hourly management to franchisees and corporate leadership, an increasing number of brands are placing a priority on developing a diverse roster of team members that better reflects the country as a whole.

Levy Restaurants—a hospitality group that operates full-service restaurants and dining services for convention centers, sports stadiums, and entertainment venues—is leading the way in the food and beverage industry.

In January, the Chicago-based company came in at No. 3 on Forbes magazine’s 2018 Best Employers for Diversity list, far ahead of fellow companies like Nestlé at 81 and Darden Restaurants at 212. (Levy has also made Forbes’ overall Best Employers list three years running.)

The list was compiled by Forbes and research firm Statista based on surveys with 30,000 U.S employees, in which they were asked about their company’s view on diversity, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, and disability.

Finalists were also chosen based on the gender split of companies’ executive boards and leadership teams.

This is likely one of the reasons Levy landed so high on the list: Half of Levy’s eight-person executive board—as well as its larger strategy group—is made up of women, while the company and its subsidiary brands also show ethnic diversity across all management levels.

“There’s a lot of conversation around diversity, which means so many different things to so many different people. It might be color of skin; it might be gender; it might be sexual orientation,” says Cindy Noble, executive vice president of human resources at the Compass Group, the parent company of Levy Restaurants.

“I think we take a little bit of a different spin on that, and we look at it as an environment of inclusion, where no one really stands out due to any specific aspect of themselves,” Noble adds.

Not only does a varied leadership team and inclusive environment send an empowering message to employees, it also helps companies better connect with a diverse customer base and solve problems based on their needs.

By representing a larger community of people, businesses get a larger community of people in your restaurants, says Brian McDonough, a human resources expert with Synergy Restaurant Consultants. He adds that customers of any particular race or gender are more comfortable when they’re represented in the restaurants.

But diversity isn’t just about elevating more women or minorities to leadership roles.

“For me, having diversity in leadership is really about having people who are very different,” says Carrie Luxem, founder of Restaurant HR Group and author of Restaurant Operators’ HR Playbook. These leaders come from different backgrounds, have different levels of education, and have been exposed to different experiences, she adds.

What diversity isn’t about is bringing less-qualified candidates on board just for variety’s sake, Luxem says. The restaurant industry may have more than its fair share of young men, but that doesn’t mean restaurants should not hire those candidates simply because they aren’t a woman or a minority, she adds.

“There’s that challenge of balancing having the right people, but making sure that you are showing the effort to bring on people from all walks of life,” Luxem says. That tends to be a challenge in and of itself, in terms of finding a diverse group of leaders who also think differently from one another.

“You can have people who are very different in gender and race, but they’re all acting exactly the same. There’s no challenging each other,” Luxem adds. “Diversity goes much deeper than the color of somebody’s skin or somebody’s gender.”

Noble says Levy’s diversity of thought at the leadership level helps the team more creatively solve problems within the business. Because of its diversity at the very top, Levy can pivot in different directions and ideate a variety of solutions to challenges.

This collaborative environment leads to a more nimble company that nurtures outside-the-box brainstorming rather than defaulting to a more homogenous groupthink.

The company is also developing a pipeline of diverse leaders for tomorrow. “You have to start early, you have to be purposeful and thoughtful, and everybody has to agree that there’s a common goal that every single person is going to have the opportunity to succeed,” Noble says.

Companies like Levy lead McDonough and Luxem to believe the restaurant industry is ahead of many others in terms of diversity at all ranks.

“There’s lot of diversity at the hourly level, a lot of diversity at the management and unit level,” Luxem says. “As you get to more senior-level positions, there’s maybe less women and less diversity, but I do feel there’s a lot of effort—especially as a company gets bigger—to make sure they’re attracting people that have different backgrounds.”

Feature, Labor & Employees