Protests in California.
Unsplash/Vince Fleming

There are now two pandemics going on: COVID-19, which everybody is aware of, and racism, which everybody should be aware of but many of us overlook, says Gerry Fernandez.

MFHA President to Restaurants: ‘Your Silence is Deafening’

The leader of the Multicultural Foodservice and Hospitality Alliance says it’s time for restaurant leaders to make their voices heard.

When asked how he’s doing this week, the Multicultural Foodservice and Hospitality Alliance’s founder and president, Gerry Fernandez, will give you an honest answer.

“When people ask how I’m doing, I’m just going to tell them,” he says. “I’m terrible. I’m worried, I’m frightened, I’m angry all at the same time. That young black boy could be one of my boys, my grandson. I worry about these things pretty regularly but, recently, I worry about them all the time. And that’s something our industry leaders have to get in touch with.”

On May 25, George Floyd, an unarmed black man, was killed by a Minneapolis policeman after the officer kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes. A video of Floyd’s murder has sparked nationwide protests against systemic racism and police brutality for over a week now, and the protests—at times violent—are continuing, in spite of attempts to curb the assemblies with curfews, heavy police presence, and President Donald Trump’s threat of active military. To compound the unrest, in addition to Floyd’s death and the protests and additional police force that have followed it, America is still trudging through the coronavirus pandemic, a crisis that has disproportionately affected communities of color.

Fernandez’s nonprofit was created to educate the foodservice and hospitality industries on matters of cultural diversity and inclusion; a purpose that’s particularly relevant right now. FSR talked with Fernandez about the responsibilities of foodservice executives and restaurant operators—both in the present and in the future with the creation of a more inclusive industry and nation.

Why is it important for the foodservice industry in particular to respond to this crisis?

What we saw [with George Floyd] was nothing short of murder. You can watch the whole nine minutes and it’s like a lion taking the life of a zebra; you watch Floyd’s humanity just bleed away.

Our industry employs a large number of women and people of color. So we're a big part of that workforce. Many of our workers are bringing their whole experience into work with them; these people just have to turn off the anger and the frustration and the fear, go to work and smile and say, “Hi, how can I serve you?”

Multicultural Foodservice and Hospitality Alliance

Gerry Fernandez's nonprofit was created to educate the foodservice and hospitality industries on matters of cultural diversity and inclusion.

Last week, I had conversations with two African American women who were close to tears because it’s hard for them to go into work right now and educate their white colleagues. Many black workers are being expected to educate everyone with information that people could easily research for themselves.

Politicians are making inflammatory statements, police are not getting rid of the bad apples in the force, and restaurants are caught in the crosshairs. When violence is happening in cities, manufacturing plants and suppliers don’t have to worry, we do, because restaurants are in those cities. And our workforce is especially vulnerable to the coronavirus too, because of our close proximity to others in kitchens, our diversity, and our necessity.

So we have a vested interest to be on the right side of these issues as an industry.

There have been some responses, mostly internal, to the Floyd events from larger foodservice companies such as Restaurant Brands International and Yum! Brands. Is there enough response coming from the industry right now? What should a foodservice company’s response look like?

Right now, I haven’t seen as much response as I would like to see in foodservice.

I think the best thing leaders of restaurant companies could do is care for their employees right now. We have two pandemics going on: COVID-19, which everybody is aware of, and racism, which everybody should be aware of but many of us overlook. These two are coinciding, and I think the best thing big brands could do is communicate their care, their concerns, and their commitment to taking some kind of action to their employees. It would be nice if they want to say something to the public, and I hope at some point we’ll get there, but they should at least be talking to their employees.

As a leader, you should say that what occurred in Minneapolis is completely wrong. Don’t skip over the fact that a man lost his life at the hands of the police, who are charged to support and protect. And we know there’s other pain and suffering; black, brown, and Latino people over-index for getting COVID-19 and dying from it.

How many family members have you lost to COVID-19? I've lost four, and this crisis is really personal. So be there for your employees, give them space, listen to them, talk to them, and let them talk, vent, and express. Listening well and with empathy is a big part of this.

Go through your healthcare provider to connect with professionals and local counseling folks to give your employees support. The stress is heavy right now. Make sure that the mental healthcare professionals and counseling services you connect with are culturally responsive and culturally sensitive, and understand some of these issues in communities of color. Even small businesses with limited resources can find local counseling services and point employees to those.

Look for some programs locally that you can connect with. We can’t forget that the Asian community has been traumatized as well—they were blamed by some for the pandemic. You just have to start making these statements internally.

What are some responses that brands should avoid right now?

You just can't be silent on this. That sends the wrong message to your employees. Your silence is deafening.

You can’t pretend that black people aren’t scared. You can’t pretend that cities aren’t on fire, that there aren’t black kids, white kids, Asian kids, all races out in the street. You can’t skip over the way people feel. You can't get defensive about it. Right now, you can’t focus on the looters. Looting is terrible, but you have to think, “Why are they looting?”

I also recommend that operators and execs, regardless of their political affiliation, drop politics at the door. It’s an election year, and politics are already going to show up in our industry and restaurants in the fall. But, as a leader, you can’t divide your employees and customers with your politics; it makes the environment worse and it shows certain employees that you don’t care about their side of things.

Recently, there has been some noise on social media platforms about boycotting certain foodservice brands because they have financially supported Trump—for instance, the hashtag #WendysIsOver was trending on social media on Tuesday. What is your advice for the brands included in this user boycott?

Elections have consequences. So companies need to be thoughtful about how they express political affiliations and commitments, because in the Internet world, customers can track and uncover those actions.

Whether or not boycotts come back in full force, you can’t leave political actions and issues unaddressed with your customers. It’s like leaving a few ants alone in your house—before long you have an infestation. Those political actions can permeate your whole brand. People watch what you do. And if your words and actions are not consistent, they will notice.

What do you think foodservice industry leaders can do to create a better industry—and a better nation—in the future?

Politics in this country have gotten too divided. We used to have the ability to meet in the middle, and have conversations with others who are on the opposite side of issues. But now, with the cry of “fake news,” people don’t have to listen to the other side.

The only way I see that divide improving is by corporate entities flexing their muscles and saying, “We have all of these resources, and we can deploy these resources in many constructive ways. We have the power to support companies, politicians, and initiatives that are for the good of all the public, not just one group.”

There aren’t any easy solutions, but we at least have to be in the game. When companies stand up and say that police shooting black people is intolerable and unacceptable, it’s influential. Corporations can make a difference—when 10 or 15 companies start putting pressure on a political entity, it can make change.

If you haven’t implemented unconscious bias training, now is a good time. There are arguments that we don’t know how effective this training is, but no training is not working. You need to put programs in place that train employees to recognize bias, unconscious bias, implicit bias. We encourage people to create the scenarios that most frequently occur in your restaurant and practice your response. When a customer doesn’t want a certain employee waiting on them because they are a certain color or ethnicity, what are you going to do about it? What is your policy in situations like this?

Brands also have to do the surveying and data work. Ask your employees if they feel safe at work, if they feel safe getting the way to work, if they’re afraid of the virus, etc. Find out how your employees are feeling and make sure you are aware of the issues that matter to them, and, if you have any internal issues, they’ll show up.

Another issue that we’re going to have to face is the lack of people of color in leadership in a lot of these restaurant companies. We do not have a very good pipeline for developing people of color in our industry. We have to be purposeful about developing a new pipeline so that all levels of our organization is as inclusive as the communities we serve. We have to look at the optics; if we’ve got all white folks at the top, then we look out of touch, because we are out of touch. So you need the leadership to reflect the diversity of our workforce and customer base. When you have inclusive leadership, you avoid blind spots and potholes.

As an employee, I would feel a lot better about my company if I knew they were going to work to address some of these issues. And this isn’t just about black employees; inclusivity matters to all millennials and Gen Z’s. If you aren’t a good employer for their gay friends, or their black friends, they’re going to leave.

What advice do you have for white restaurant operators or industry executives that are looking to become better allies for the black community right now?

To my white brothers and sisters and colleagues: This the time to stand up and be counted. You will be remembered for the conversations that you did not have. This is not a black thing. This is an American thing. This racism issue will not be solved without white men and women in the lead positions, actively involved.

When a white leader stands up and says, “This is not okay,” people listen. I am convinced that our most powerful CEOs could make the earth turn slightly differently if they so chose. And white operators and small businesspeople have assets and influence, too.

Do you have any words of encouragement or support for restaurants—particularly smaller chains, independents, or black-owned restaurants—discouraged by the recent events?

First of all, as an industry we will survive. We might have to rebuild, but we will figure this out.

Smaller chains and independently-owned restaurants don’t have a lot of excess resources, which was why the government bailouts needed to be handled much better than they were. But these little guys have to maintain hope and continue to make connections in their communities. They have to be active politically. I know that's hard to do when you run a small business, but the squeaky wheel gets the grease. They have to learn to collaborate with others and get involved with their local associations like their Small Business Association and their state’s restaurant association. This is the time to work together.