Healthcare, immigration reform, and minimum wage hikes were among the top issues restaurateurs discussed with members of Congress during the National Restaurant Association’s 2014 Public Affairs Conference in Washington, D.C., April 29-30.

This year’s theme of “Stand Up for Restaurants” expresses the intense pressures operators are experiencing as a result of these issues.

“It was our largest turnout that anyone can recall, with over 700 restaurateurs, close to 400 meetings scheduled, and a lot more involvement from the chains,” notes Scott DeFife, the NRA’s executive vice president, policy and government affairs.

The Public Affairs Conference gives restaurant owners the opportunity to meet directly with elected officials, and share their stories, specifically on how federal laws affect their businesses, as well as clear up misconceptions about the industry.

“Meeting with legislators gives restaurant operators the opportunity to teach people in elected office what’s it like to run a restaurant, the hurdles and the realities,” says DeFife.

Often, the policymakers’ only real knowledge of restaurants is from a customer perspective.

“The primary focus for restaurant operators and owners is to make sure their guests have a good positive experience; they don’t talk to elected officials about the restaurant business model when they come into their restaurant,” DeFife says. “We need to take these moments when we can to educate what it’s like to run a restaurant, and the difficulties with regulatory barriers and cost barriers to make it successful.”

Many in the industry feel the government has unfairly targeted the restaurant sector within the regulatory environment. For example, the restaurant industry has been castigated recently for paying employees minimum wages, though NRA research indicates that on a national level, tipped employees earn a median of $16 to $22 per hour.

“We provide opportunities to young kids, working parents, returning veterans,” says Danny Sumrall, owner of The Half Shell restaurants in Memphis, and chairman of the Tennessee Hospitality and Tourism Association. “We want to provide the American Dream. Unfortunately, the American Dream is being cut off at the knees.”

One issue not receiving much press, but generating concern, involves the increase in patent fraud, DeFife says. DeFife notes that  “patent trolls,” groups of lawyers or venture capitalists who buy patents, mostly in the software technology space, are initiating lawsuits for patent infringement.

Developers usually hold patents, and if there is an alleged violation, it is typically between the patent holder and manufacturer of the device or application developer. What some of the more aggressive trolls do is look to see who uses the equipment and send out blanket letters accusing them of patent infringement.

This crops up in applications related to a website or WiFi device, such as a restaurant’s use of a nutrition calculator on its website.

NRA’s annual Public Affairs Conference is part of a grassroots effort by the organization to call attention to how policymakers’ decisions impact the restaurant industry. “We need our members to continue in this effort the rest of the year, and make more and more connections with federal officials,” DeFife asserts.

By Joann Whitcher

Industry News, Legal, National Restaurant Association