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.”