It's not just the name... but we'll volunteer that changing that immediately would be a great start.
— Kristen Hawley
Why is a restaurant news site running a story about the NRA? Perhaps you have the wrong idea.
And that’s the point.
This is not about the National Rifle Association.
The National Restaurant Association has been around for nearly a century. Its roots go back to 1917, when the newly-formed Kansas City Restaurant Association organized a boycott over the price of eggs. In 1919, the group expanded to represent 43,000 restaurants nationwide.
Flash forward a hundred years: The NRA’s Restaurant Show, which just wrapped up its 99th edition in Chicago yesterday, brought in over 65,000 attendees and exhibitors this year (including us).
It has a legacy, it’s big, and it serves its members relatively well.
But it can’t keep doing so with a name that is synonymous with one of the most polarizing trade groups on the planet — among both the Restaurant Association’s members and the general public.
During one of the more recent school shootings in the United States (which one we’re not sure, it’s so hard to keep track), politicians had to clarify which NRA had donated to their campaign. Soon after, a representative of the Restaurant Association explained the confusion to CNBC when they said “Every once in a while this happens.” This is bad both for the group’s lobbying efforts and any public advocacy it tries to do on behalf of its members.
You can be nearly certain that the one commonality shared by tens of thousands of attendees of the Chicago event, was the phrase “No, not that NRA,” when they mentioned their trip to Chicago to friends and colleagues. In fact, this happened as recently as our flight home after the show.
A Bigger Reason for Change
The current political landscape aside, the organization’s centennial year is its best opportunity for a big change. It’s an excellent opportunity for the organization beyond just clarifying that they are not the world’s preeminent trade group representing sellers of weapons that shoot.
Like many trade organizations, the National Restaurant Association is going to do just fine doing what it’s done for years. Until it doesn’t. It would not be unfair to say that the group is in need of a major refresh, to say the least.
First, let’s talk about brand identity. A year and a half ago, Fast Co. Design wrote, “It has never been harder to design a good visual identity.” And that’s still true thanks to social media, video, websites, advertising, and all the places that a brand’s logo must look good. But we’ve never understood the logo. At first glance, maybe it’s a cloud. Or maybe two plates? Or a tray with a cover like you get with your room service? What does it represent? Your guess is as good as ours.
Then there’s the matter of digital presence, no small feat for a huge organization tasked with reaching restaurant professionals across the country. The Association’s digital arm, Restaurant.org, serves as a strong argument that the Association knows nothing about digital innovation, consumer habits, communication, or marketing.
This can be summed up by attempting to use your mobile phone to read an article such as “Why a mobile strategy is essential for restaurants,” which was contributed by a third party rather than produced by an Association expert, and is only formatted for desktop. Why would a restaurateur, who’s likely checking his or her smartphone between shifts, trust the Association to teach him or her anything about the consumer journey if they clearly can’t get it right on their own website and they can’t be bothered to use their expertise to provide guidance rather than outsource it to someone selling something? This is professional development at its laziest.
At this week’s annual event, the networking opportunities and membership connections the organization provides were valuable to restaurateurs and others in the industry. The boldface names and celebrity chefs that graced its demonstration stage over show weekend certainly drew a crowd. (Top Chef winners and television stars will do that.) But how useful is an “innovations” stage which was only notable for its open chairs and unfortunate graphic design (a backwards “n” in “innovations” is not innovative) or a “Future of Restaurants” program that featured an “AI-driven robot” and a human futurist which both dramatically failed to understand what diners want now?
A Bigger Tent
We also think it’s a good time for the Restaurant Association to think bigger and smarter about who its constituents are. Right now it is the voices of owners and management. And while we won’t deny that these people are vital stakeholders in the future of the industry, they can’t do what they want without the support of their employees.
In every major city, restaurant operators are going to have to deal with the rising minimum wage and the challenge of tip credits. Smart restaurateurs want to do what’s best for their employees and for their business. But for too long the Restaurant Association has only advocated on the side of operators who wanted to keep wages low.
This is a mistake.
While management and employees are often at odds, in the hospitality industry they are deeply integrated and success depends on each group buying into the success of the other. That means the current conflicts stirred up by wage debates can be best solved through collaboration and training rather than conflict.
The Restaurant Association has a century’s worth of learnings that it can lean on to better explain to its stakeholders what it takes to creating a winning restaurant. A bigger tent that provides a place for labor gives the Association a chance to better explain the industry’s key role in advancing careers, creating opportunity, and building wealth for all parties involved.
The National Restaurant Association itself is necessary, useful, and does important work. Its brand, its look, its name should reflect the future, not some hazy, ambiguous, idea of the industry’s past.
The NRA — that is, as we say, the other NRA — should do well by its members and create an organization that’s as exciting and future-looking as it is useful and in no way confused with a group working to further gun rights in a country already torn apart by violence.
Drop the NRA name, embrace a smarter mission, and build upon the promises the industry makes possible.
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