As President of the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association (NJRHA) headquartered in Trenton, NJ, Marilou Halvorsen leads an organization that represents the Garden State’s 25,000 hospitality establishments, generating $14 billion in annual sales and employing over 311,000 people.
Members of the NJRHA include restaurants, lodging facilities, and amusement parks and attractions. The state is seeing more and more regulations of the foodservice industry and the NJRHA, in its advocacy role, is helping its members understand and cope with the new requirements.
As you look at this year, what was on the agenda, and where are you in terms of what’s been accomplished?
The big thing for us was expanding the diversity of our membership. And not just the membership but also our board, making sure that we have representation across the industry – not just geographically but also the different kinds of restaurants we have in the state. We’re focusing as well on bringing the hotel sector in, making sure that we have representation on our board for that. We’ve always had some chains, some national brands, but really, it’s been a little harder or more challenging to reach out to the franchisees. We want to do that now.
Have you succeeded in bringing them in?
Yes. We are thrilled to have added Outback to our membership roster. We’re working on Jersey Mike’s. And then we also have the Asian American Hotel Owners Association. They’re a national organization based out of Washington DC with a large base of members in New Jersey.
What is it that membership is going to bring them?
As an industry, we’re faced with a lot of legislative and regulatory challenges. Especially since the people doing airbnb don’t pay the same taxes, or sometimes even any taxes, and don’t have the same regulatory compliance, it’s unfair competition. So we’re working with members of the legislature on that. We just got a bill introduced that would now tax those airbnb’s at the same rate as hotels.
Education is something else that we bring to the table. We’re now doing hospitality education so we can bring that to our hotel members. One of the things that we’re hoping to do is partner with the American Hotel and Lodging Association and become its state partner, see if there’s a way that we can work with them on some online classes.
This is to help those who are already in this industry, but maybe do not have the time to go physically to school. This will help them to be able to start going to college that way and advancing their career. One of the best things about this industry is that you can start at entry level and end up in a management position, pretty quickly. It truly is the industry of opportunity. However we can help be the gateway for them to be educated and get promoted from within, that’s our goal.
Tell me more about your education plans.
There are a lot of programs out there that teach you how to cook. But there’s not a lot of programs that teach you how to work in a restaurant. So that’s something we’re working on. As much as advocacy is the largest part of what we do, it can’t be the only thing that we do. So we’re focusing on real, practical, day-to-day solutions and it starts with the labor force. That’s the biggest thing I hear every single day from my members is the struggle to find and retain great people. So we’ve decided we’re going to take the bull by the horns and we’re going to help you figure it out.
As for one of the issues currently affecting the industry, what do you tell your members about the effect minimum wage is going to have?
It’s going to have a big effect on us. We’ve met with 23 members of the legislature as well as several mayors to talk about all the labor issues – paid leave, minimum wage. We understand the political climate that we have here in the state. It’s a very progressive state and there are driving forces behind these initiatives. However, we’re trying to be at the table instead of the line in the sand, being at the table and saying, okay, if you’re going to do this, what’s a reasonable approach where you’ll still be able to have restaurants to employ people.
We actually worked with the mayor of New Brunswick to get a paid leave ordinance that allows restaurants to still maintain control of their business. We said, if you’re going to consider paid leave, this is the approach that we would like to see. We’ve also met with other members of the legislature and said, you need to look at New Brunswick as the model. Many of our members have businesses in many locations, so to try and comply with four or five different town ordinances is crazy. Now they’re looking at our association and saying, here’s a business group that’s being reasonable. They’re trying to come up with a solution, and it’s really hard for them to cut us out and say you don’t have a say when we’re being practical and reasonable.
Do you think the industry is changing?
I think we are all coming to the reality of knowing that the industry that you see now is not going to be the industry of the future. Whether it’s automation or how restaurants do business, it’s going to change with costs increasing and technology grows.
What do you think is one of the best things about the industry?
It’s the different kinds of restaurants and the culturally diverse ones, as much as I love my chain restaurants! But the smaller restaurants aren’t going to be able to absorb all this regulatory and labor legislation. They need to really be careful of how much they pile on before the system does collapse in terms of cost and legislation.
What is one of the most concerning things?
The legislature told me they get tired of hearing the sky’s falling, it’s Armageddon, your doors are going to close. When you put paid leave, or minimum wage, the Affordable Care Act, everything together, it all does have consequences. These kids coming in to flip burgers, they were not meant to be jobs that were supposed to pay for their family to live. And somehow we’ve inherited this obligation and responsibility That’s what I’ve said to the legislature — you are using the term ‘living wage’ with minimum wage, and they’re not the same thing. You have to separate that argument out.
What’s new on the vendor community side?
They’ve always been very supportive, realizing that without the restaurants they don’t have customers so our vendor member increases actually had a bigger leap than our restaurant member leap.
So tell me about the NJRHA Gala.
The theme is giving back. Every one of our award recipients never say no to anyone. They just continue to give back. Tim McLoone of McLoone’s Restaurants is one of our Gold Plate winners. He’s an icon. He’s from New Jersey so he knows and loves the state, but it’s not just what he’s done with the restaurants, but Holiday Express. And, certainly, his fund raising efforts and all that he does for child cancer. He’s one of those steadfast restaurants. You say McLoone’s, and everybody knows. He says he can be so busy with his philanthropic work because he has good people running his restaurants that allow him the time to do this other stuff. Then we have Paul Dylan, a longtime board member of the association, and the dean of the Hudson Valley School of Hospitality. He’s our lead judge for our Pro-Start competition that we’re hosting at the school this year. And then the Kunish family. Four generations ago, their great grandmother started the Allendale Bar and Grill. Now they’ve expanded it, and they have the Mahwah Bar and Grill. He started a program where he packs up food for kids in the school lunch program that don’t have lunch in the summer. He’s helped out in the Haiti earthquake. There isn’t anyone he won’t help. We’re not just businesses. We help the community.