Though today’s restaurants operate in an increasingly complex and competitive environment, foodservice establishments remain visible and important cornerstones in communities across the U.S.
As an industry that employs 14 million individuals and produces sales of $709 billion, National Restaurant Association (NRA) CEO Dawn Sweeney says, restaurants are a “national powerhouse of opportunity,” a private-sector luminary that promotes the American Dream by providing paths to success within the hospitality landscape and transferable skills that can spark an individual’s ascent in other professional fields as well.
It was that very notion of the American Dream that Sweeney discussed with Huffington Post Media Group president Arianna Huffington during the keynote program at the 2015 National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago on May 17. Titled “State of the American Dream,” Sweeney and Huffington’s fireside chat explored how restaurant industry leaders might achieve their own American Dream while simultaneously providing others a pathway to reach theirs.
A Battle of Voices
In kicking off the keynote program with a brief State of the Industry address, NRA chairman Jack Crawford, president and CEO of Ground Round Independent Owners Cooperative, called restaurants “the original social network,” places that serve as community gathering spots, offer employment opportunities, and fulfill philanthropic missions. He challenged restaurant industry leaders to recruit talent to the industry and stand up to critics.
Said critics soon appeared.
Less than 10 minutes into the Sweeney-Huffington conversation, a small group of labor protestors scattered throughout the capacity crowd emerged. Chanting and brandishing signs challenging the minimum wage, some members of the crowd booed while Sweeney continued to speak and security ushered protestors to the exit.
In the immediate aftermath, Sweeney noted that one of the wonderful things about American democracy was the freedom all individuals enjoyed to share their viewpoints. “And now we’ll speak up for ourselves,” Sweeney said, a sentiment met with applause as the last of the protestors exited.
Amid growing inequality and rising poverty, however, Huffington noted that the American Dream remains in real danger, a fundamental problem that must be addressed with care and urgency. “It’s not a right-left problem,” Huffington said, sidestepping the political minefields that often accompany such debate.
Having chased and secured her own American Dream, Huffington surely feels a kinship with the prized U.S. notion of personal attainment. Born in Greece to working-class parents, Huffington attended Cambridge University in the United Kingdom before immigrating to the U.S. Buoyed by a rising career in journalism, Huffington cofounded The Huffington Post in 2005, an award-winning digital media enterprise that captured a loyal following, mainstream appeal, and, eventually, a $315 million deal from AOL.
Sweeney called Huffington “the epitome of the American dream.”
A Revised Sefinition of the American Dream
In his ambitious 1931 book The Epic of America, James Truslow Adams termed the American Dream a concept of “social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
While the contemporary American Dream is often linked to material outcomes, Huffington promoted a revised definition, an ideal more connected to a fulfilling and inspired life than money or power. She told of her own epiphany eight years ago, when, amid feverishly growing The Huffington Post, she collapsed in exhaustion, broke her cheekbone, knocked her head, and lay amid her own blood.
“And I said, ‘Is this what success looks like?’” Huffington recalled.
That experience pushed Huffington to evaluate how the culture defines success and, subsequently, to place increased emphasis on health and well-being. To that end, Huffington has worked to create genuine connections with the media firm’s employees, hoping that they see themselves as nurtured professionals rather than simply cogs in a wheel. As a result, The Huffington Post’s New York offices feature nap rooms, yoga classes, and policies around responding to after-work emails.
“Having something fulfilling in life isn’t necessarily a trade-off for success, but an enhancement to performance,” said Huffington, whose latest best-selling book Thrive draws on research in psychology and physiology to help readers travel a new path to success in the modern world.
Huffington added that entrepreneurial spirit is central to the American Dream because it means individuals can start something, build it, and overcome adversity. Rather than looking at failure as the opposite of achievement, she touted struggle as a stepping stone to success, reminding attendees that the biggest heartbreaks often prompt the greatest opportunities.
“Focus on what you’re grateful for,” she said, directing attendees to resist the tendency to focus on life’s problems and shortcomings and instead embrace prospective solutions.
By Daniel P. Smith