A record number of attendees participated in the National Restaurant Association’s 35th annual Public Affairs Conference, held April 20.

Usually held live in Washington, D.C., the conference, including visits to Capitol Hill to conduct Congressional meetings, took place virtually this year because of coronavirus. This year’s PAC theme, “Restaurants Act,” summed up the industry’s entrepreneurial spirit and unwavering commitment to employees and guests during the most challenging year the nation has ever experienced.

Association president and CEO Tom Bené delivered opening remarks, followed by keynotes from Josh Earnest, the 29th White House Press Secretary under President Obama, and FOX News co-anchor Dana Perino. Lance Trenary, president and CEO of Golden Corral Corp., served as conference chair.

Presenters Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. VA), Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) stressed the importance of bipartisanship in three separate sessions with the same theme: “Seeking Unity: Conversations on How We Can Come Together.”

Almost overnight last March, the pandemic forced owners and operators to adjust their business models, reduce capacity or close dining rooms, and adhere to changing local, state, and federal guidelines.

“We are focused on sharing our story with Members of Congress as we continue to advocate on behalf of every restaurant,” Bené said in his opening remarks. “Since the onset of the pandemic, we have worked with policy makers to identify and implement solutions that work for every type of restaurant, from our beloved local diners to our favorite national chains, and everything in between.

“We’ve engaged with policy makers at every level of government, from local city council members and mayors to the Capitol, to get restaurants the help they need to reopen, recover, and resume fully serving their communities.”

This year’s agenda focused on three specific areas:

  1. Wage/Tip Credit: The Raise the Wage Act of 2021 seeks to hike the federal minimum wage from the current $7.25 to $15 per hour over five years and eliminate the tip credit for tipped employees who earn $19-$25 per hour on average.
     
  2. Immigration Reform: The current immigration system is broken and congressional reform is long overdue. As we emerge from the pandemic, there’s a strong economic incentive to fix it because legal immigration creates a strong workforce. The Association supports bipartisan, commonsense immigration reforms that expand U.S. employers’ ability to hire a legal workforce.
     
  3. Industry Recovery: Much of the industry is still feeling the daily impact of job and revenue loss, loss greater than any other industry, and Congressional support will help, but we’re urging lawmakers to take a “do no harm” approach to issues affecting restaurants and our workforce.

Association research concluded that in 2020, industry sales declined $270 billion, 110,000 restaurants closed permanently or for the long-term, and employment declined by nearly 2 million jobs, compared with pre-pandemic levels. According to the data, 32% of restaurant operators think it will take seven months to another year before business conditions return to normal.

The Restaurant Revitalization Fund grant program has been a top priority for the Association, Bené said. The $28.6 billion fund, which provides grants to restaurants that sustained financial losses due to the pandemic, is part of the American Rescue Plan Act that passed March 11.

The Small Business Administration is administering the program. For the first 21 days, applications are being prioritized for women-owned, minority, and socially- and economically- disadvantaged businesses.

This year’s conference builds on some of the big wins the Association has secured on behalf of the industry:

  • Conceived of the Restaurant Revitalization Fund
  • Secured access to more than $70 billion in PPP loans for struggling restaurateurs
  • Saved restaurants $15.7 billion with PPP deductibility
  • Established a $21.5 million Restaurant Employee Relief Fund
  • Designed free ServSafe training/COVID-19 modules
  • Increased off-premises dining through a national TV campaign
  • Set up the ServSafe Dining Commitment
  • Created the first COVID-19 Operating Guidance for all restaurants
  • Fought for and supported regulations permitting restaurants to serve cocktails to-go
  • Expanded ERTC to support employment

For more information about the Association’s policy work, visit Restaurants Act