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:
- Jobs and careers
- Food and healthy living, especially how to deal with obesity, even from a public relations perspective
- Profitability and entrepreneurship, specifically tax issues, depreciation, and aggregating buying power
- 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.
Promoting Healthy Living
To that end, the association has worked with the First Lady’s “Let’s Move!” campaign. It was the initiative’s launch that brought together the three major school foodservice providers—Sodexo, Compass, and Aramark—to meet for many months on the subject of school lunches.
Thanks to those meetings, the First Lady supported a commitment made by the three companies to improve school lunches with more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, and to help reduce the incidence of childhood obesity.
It’s also about influence. Those three companies are the largest and most trend setting in schools, Sweeney says, but the schools themselves provide 80 percent of meals. “We hope to have an influence on that 80 percent [by showing them what can be done in the schools].”
The NRA is also working on healthy-food guidelines that the restaurant industry could embrace. “I think we’re going to see a really radical shift,” Sweeney says, “and our hope is that we can be a catalyst for that.”
The NRA takes the four areas of its strategic plan seriously and has changed its governance plan to align with them. Each board member even serves on a committee specifically focused on one area as well as the typical standing committees found in most associations.
The association is also working on making the board more representative of its members. Previously it was representative geographically but now, as board seats open up, consideration is given to having board members that are:
- evenly split between independent and chain restaurants
- from franchised and company-owned locations
- from different segments of dining, from quick-serve restaurants to fine dining
Finding a Future
While the economic challenges and changes in the past three and a half years may have absorbed a lot of Sweeney’s time, they weren’t all she had to work on.
As the CEO of the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation, she also encouraged young people to follow careers paths into the restaurant industry, either from a culinary or a management perspective.
This has been done through the national high school curriculum program ProStart. It is a career building culinary and management-training program for students who have an interest in the foodservice industry.
Over two years, ProStart students experience classroom study, mentored work experiences, and local and national competitions. There’s a need for a program like this: Between 2009 and 2019, the number of jobs in the restaurant and foodservice industry is projected to increase by 1.8 million.
ProStart pre-dated Sweeney, but it’s grown enormously under her direction. The number of students involved has almost doubled in less than four years, from 54,000 to 90,000 and they come from 1,700 schools across 45 states, Guam, and U.S. military bases. But she’s not content yet and wants it to grow even further.
“We have devoted our educational foundation to growing this program dramatically,” Sweeney says.
Every year there’s a ProStart Invitational, which is run by the NRAEF. Through this, students compete at the state level to prove their skills and a commitment to the industry. First-place winning teams then compete at the annual National ProStart Invitational. Excellence in coursework and on-the-job training are key elements to success.
At the end of the Invitational, which this year was held in Overland Park, Kansas, winning teams are awarded scholarships to continue their education, provided by the NRAEF, The Coca-Cola Company, and leading schools across the U.S.
This year’s event attracted about 600 students.
“This helps prepare the next generation of leaders in our industry, but it also helps a group of kids solidify the direction they want their life to go in,” Sweeney says. “We’re impacting hundreds of thousands of individuals. Many of the kids who are there will be able to continue their education once they graduate from high school.”
Working Together at the State Level
Another thing that’s grown during Sweeney’s tenure at the NRA is the commitment to the association from the state level.
“Everything happens at the state organization level at the beginning,” she says. “It’s a great example of what can happen when state associations and the national association partner up.”
These state associations have been a high priority, Sweeney says.
“We spend a lot of time with them to make sure we are aligned and cooperating in ways that are most impactful for the industry. We now have meetings and quarterly goals that we create. Many states have taken our strategic plan and adopted it and the four issues I mentioned. It’s really gratifying to see.”
The support of the states is essential for every issue, Sweeney says. “Whether it’s healthcare reform or debit card swipe fees, it’s the states and national association together that have to be aligned. Things often move at the state level first before they’re at the federal level. This was one of the major initiatives we needed to undertake.”
To help with this, Sweeney has hired two restaurant executives—Mike McCallum, NRA's chief strategy officer, who was previously CEO of the Oregon Restaurant Association and Rob Gifford, EVP of political advocacy, who was formerly CEO of the Michigan Restaurant Association.
“Mike and Rob bring vital expertise to the NRA team, not the least of which are their innate understanding of the industry and its many players and their deep appreciation of the importance of our work with the states,” she says.
Healthcare reform is one of the hardest things Sweeney says she’s worked on and the debit card swipe fee issue needs to be resolved soon because it’s hurting both the industry and consumers, she explains.
But the NRA continues to make progress, Sweeney says, “because of the engagement of our members and our board. Without that, there’s very little that I could do. I’m anxious for that to continue.”
The Right Team
Going forward the issues that Sweeney says she’ll spend the most time dealing with are immigration; the changes that are being considered at the National Labor Relations Board; and menu labeling, which will be implemented in the next 10 to 12 months.
To help accomplish the organization’s goals, Sweeney has created an all-star team at the NRA. She modestly calls her ability to select these people “best talent.”
“[It’s about] making sure we have the right team in place in the organization at all levels to execute a very ambitious plan. I’ve brought in a number of people and we’ve elevated a number of people who’ve been here quite a long time.”
While she may not have been capable of halting the recession, Sweeney may well prove instrumental in getting the entire industry back on track.