As the Executive Director of the NYC Food & Beverage Hospitality Council (a program by NYC Small Business Services), Michel Mroue´ has taken the lead for a glaring need in New York City’s foodservice and hospitality industries.
Total Food Service sat down with Michel Mroue´ to discuss the Council’s objectives and next steps.
How did you get started in the industry?
I have over 17 years’ experience in hospitality, mostly in food and beverage operations. I’ve worked with Starwood Hotels, Omni Hotels, Norwegian Cruise Lines – all focused on new build, new openings. One of my most recent experiences was opening a hotel on 57th Street, The Quin. I always had a lot of interest in traveling. Most of my family has lived in Dubai, so I was exposed to all the luxury hotels in the industry, the high-end restaurants. And I had this passion. Through my childhood I always wanted to become a leader in the hospitality industry. And here I am.
Based on your experience, can you give us an overview of the challenges that restaurants and foodservice operations, face on a day-to-day basis? How is the council going to help them solve some of those?
I have seen throughout all the years I have worked in New York City that most businesses suffer from common issues. One is, first of all, finding and retaining qualified individuals to fulfill the needs of the foodservice operation. There’s been a huge rise in costs in the last couple of years that’s burdened the ability to even operate and open more restaurants in the city. And the profit margins have shrunk.
For someone to be able to make a 10% profit margin today, it’s practically become a miracle. And this is what has led me to accept the position as a leader for the New York City Food and Beverage Hospitality Council.
What are the objectives of the council?
First of all, addressing the skill gaps and labor shortages. The city has started losing its hope as a place where you can become a famous chef and build a career within the city. A lot of this work force has emigrated out of the city. We need to address this. Also, how we can improve retention, because, again, if you improve retention, you’re able to reduce your costs. Each individual who leaves your establishment creates around $6,500 to $7,000 in turnover costs, so in a short period of time, you’re bleeding. And how could we do that? We could create management supports, software supports. There are a lot of industry managers who lack experience in many aspects of applied management or human resources or pest control. So we will work through the council. Everything will go through the council for approval, for recommendation.
Our second objective is to help the food and beverage industry navigate regulatory reform, including but not limited to how to deal with the Department of Health, with the Fire Department of New York, the Department of Buildings, city agencies. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done there.
How do you decide who is the right fit for the council?
I want a council that presents a bouquet of different sizes and types, from large corporations like Patina Restaurant Group to single operators. Independent single unit operators are very important for us, because this is what the city has been known for, to come in and make a name for yourself. We want a mix. We’re not an association where you have to go around and lobby for these individuals. We consider every single individual operator who comes to us and expresses interest.
You want a lot of people coming at this from different angles.
Yes, but at the same time, they have to be able to show not only interest but also commitment to play a part in the three goals that the council has convened at City Hall. We’re not collecting dues. We represent the city, New York City government, and New York City businesses. And our ultimate goal is to make positive change for the workforce and also for employees, at the same time. We have three missions: education, internship, and employment.
Tell me about the education aspect.
Education will be held at a reputable culinary institution. We will then provide an internship with one of our partners. Our partners are the council members. It’s a paid internship. After an assessment and evaluation throughout the process, there is a commitment for employment. This is hands-on training, not sitting in a classroom. It’s all practical, conducted by chefs.
We have built the basic training program around some of the programs that have been utilized in Europe successfully for a number of years.
So will an employer send an employee for this training? Will someone who wants to go to work apply for this training? Tell me a little bit about how you get into the program.
One of the services of the Department of Small Business are workforce centers that we run across New York City, and one of the components of these centers is that we find job seekers who are looking for work, and we connect them with career opportunities. Some of the folks come in through here. If they express some kind of interest in working in the food industry, this is one option that can be presented to them where they can go through this training program, find gainful employment and economic upward mobility. At the same time, we’re helping the business find qualified talent.
If we were to look at all the people who have been successful in this industry, what do you think some of the common characteristics are?
It’s thinking out of the box. Being able to take risks. The opening and the closing of a restaurant is extremely hard. Being able to adapt to the changes that the industry is facing on a daily basis. It’s getting away from the basic cookie cutter. If you take Union Square Hospitality, every single restaurant has a different brand and identity. There’s no cookie cutter. There’s no same routine, or same basic menus. If you look at the Altamarea group, if you look at LDV, the common characteristic of success between all of them is just being able to have a different identity, different products. And you, as a normal New Yorker or a tourist, you would never know that, at LDV, or Dolce, it’s the same owner because every one of them has a different personality.
What’s the difference between your group and the New York State Restaurant Association (NYSRA) or the NYC Hospitality Alliance? Is this a whole different agenda? Where does this fit in terms of what this group is trying to get accomplished?
We’re not revamping or creating different goals than what they have. But number one, we basically represent members and non-members of any association. For example, if you take Union Square Hospitality, Danny Meyer does not belong to any association. But he does belong to our council. We tend to act and work based on what the council members bring to the table. We’re definitely aware of what the NYSRA has presented or has worked on in the last few years. But at the same time, it only represents a handful of people, it does not represent the majority of 19,000 restaurants in New York City, an approximately $19 billion industry, with over half a million bars. The NYSRA represents mostly fast food and freestanding restaurants and a very small number of upscale restaurants. We represent all. We are a one-stop shop.
How do we know this is going to have some long-term roots going forward, not just out with the next mayor?
The Department of Small Business Services has existed well before Mayor de Blasio and it’ll exist after he’s gone. Ultimately this agency’s goal is not political. It’s focused on helping small businesses grow and expand.
If a restaurant wants to get involved, what is the best way to keep abreast of what’s going on?
Our website is still in progress, but until then, all of our news releases will always be found on www.nyc.gov/sbs.