Joe Essa, president and CEO of Wolfgang Puck Worldwide and the National Restaurant Association’s chairman, shares his views on the industry and what the Association is working on during its 100th anniversary.

Why is this a special year for the Association?

This year, we’re celebrating the Association’s centennial anniversary. As we mark this very special occasion, we’re also examining how far we’ve come and celebrating the ways in which restaurants have become a part of the American fabric. Our centennial theme, “Setting the Table for Success,” is pointing to the future of our industry, and the actions we’re taking to keep our Association strong so we can continue advocating for our industry during the next 100 years.

How does the Association plan to accomplish that?

We’re focusing on five major areas this year. We’re working on strategic planning that will take us through the next five years, increasing the industry’s knowledge of technology, continuing to grow our partnerships with state restaurant associations, enhancing education and tools around workforce development, and communicating the value of our industry through our partnership with Winsight Media, publisher of several industry trade magazines, including Restaurant Business.

Staying ahead of technology is important to our industry’s success. How?

Technology has changed how restaurants operate, just in the last five years! Mobile ordering and third-party delivery are two examples of the changing playing field. Today, 63 percent of restaurant traffic is off-premise, changing how we think about menus, packaging and food safety – how we think about our brands. We must stay ahead of technology so we can produce the best products and create great dining experiences for all of our customers.

The Association is offering more tools and training to enhance business. Tell us about this.

Our exciting collaboration with United HealthCare allows us to offer our Association Health Plan (AHP) program to member restaurant employers. Our AHP can assist in offering affordable health-care insurance options for employees. This program provides them with benefits options that could help them build a strong workforce, especially when our labor pool is tightening. Also, in addition to our ServSafe food-safety training courses, we are offering ServSafe Workplace, which focuses on creating and sustaining a safe and appropriate work environment for all employees. And our ServSuccess initiative emphasizes employee career development.

Sum up the Association’s goals for the next year.

Everything we’re doing is offered with one major goal in mind: we want the next generation of our workforce to know what we already know – that with hard work and dedication, anyone can have a successful, rewarding future in this industry.