The Washington-based National Restaurant Association holds its education foundation's annual winter board meeting at the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota this month. President and CEO Steven C. Anderson shared the dish on industry recruitment, employee retention and other front-burner issues. 

1. Florida voters raised the state's minimum wage during the last election. Why doesn't the National Restaurant Association traditionally support wage hikes?

Any time we've had an increase in the federal minimum wage, the restaurant industry has lost an incredible number of jobs. Particularly in an economic climate where the economy is starting to bounce back-in Florida, the industry has been hit hard by hurricanes-we don't think it's a good time to increase the minimum wage.

2. What are your organization's key initiatives?

We spend a lot of time on obesity lawsuits that have been filed against the industry. I think the restaurant industry has done a sensational job of being proactive, reformulating products so they're low fat and low carb. We have very high marks from Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson.

Our Cornerstone Initiative to enhance the image of the restaurant industry is another big focus. We want to let people know we're the cornerstone of national and local economies-nine out of 10 local restaurants do local charity work, for example.

3. What major issues face the restaurant industry in the next five years and beyond?

Labor and workforce issues are front burners on our agenda. The industry is huge. Americans now have more disposable income than ever, and increasing disposable income drives restaurant sales. We're going to do $440 billion in sales this year. The restaurant industry has a $1.2 trillion impact on the national economy. We anticipate we'll need 1.5 million new workers in the next few years.

But we have a very high turnover rate. We lose 250,000 people a week. When you have a labor force of 12 million people, it doesn't seem like much, but we want to change that number. The association, through our educational foundation, focuses on recruitment and retention. We have a program called Prostart that deals with school and career issues. We have a curriculum for high school students, and we provide mentors, scholarships and jobs for those students.

We also focus on developing tourism policies that are good for the industry (almost 50 percent of food dollars spent in restaurants comes from the traveling public).

4. Does the industry recognize any differences in the way restaurants operate in Sunbelt states like Florida when compared to the rest of the country?

It is different in Florida. We employ more minority managers than any industry in the country. We are the largest employer of immigrants and Hispanics/Latinos. Florida is a model. There are certain trends you see in Florida that preview what the nation will look like 50 years from now, so there are things we can do in Florida now that will meaningful to other people in industry in a few years.

5. It seems to us that local restaurants are losing out to the chains. Are our eyes deceiving us?

It's important to remember that 70 percent of restaurants are still small businesses. Many do less than $100,000 annually. You're seeing more chain restaurants-the fastest growing segment is the quick casual restaurant-but independents are the heart and soul of the industry.

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