Q&A Melissa Fleischut

President & CEO of NYS Restaurant Association in Albany, New York

What do you get when you take someone versed in government affairs, and restaurant issues? Melissa Autilio Fleischut, who brings her wealth of knowledge about how government works and the ways in which it can help the foodservice industry, a combination that benefits both.

How did you get into the industry?

I ended up getting an internship in the government affairs department of the National Restaurant Association. Something just clicked. Yes, I really loved it. It was very interesting to see what the association did as far as government affairs go, and how it worked on Capitol Hill.

What brought you to the NYS Restaurant Association?

Through my job I got to meet Rick Sampson from the New York State Restaurant Association, and after my first child was born, I was asked if I’d consider returning to New York. I was invited to apply for a regional rep position, and became the Northeast regional rep for the association. The timing seemed right for me. I’d spent my 20s in Washington, DC, and it was a good time for my family and I to move home.

What are the needs of your membership?

The association tries to do everything it can to make sure it’s in tune with the membership, though we do rely heavily on our chapters to be the eyes and ears in those local communities.

Milea February 2019 728×90

The members need information on new laws and regulations, trends and best practices. They need help finding employees, help with financing and educational programs.

What’s the legacy that Rick Sampson left as the Association’s leader?

My predecessor and mentor, Rick Sampson, continued the legacy of his father, Fred, who unified the organization – brought us all together. As CEO, Rick was behind the creation and development of the Educational Foundation when it was originally formed in 1999. Through the Foundation Rick was able to bring the ProStart program to New York. He was instrumental in getting the whole concept of reaching into the high schools to talk about our industry in a positive way and to get them excited and interested in the industry so that we continue to grow and thrive as an industry moving forward. He also managed the Association through some difficult economic years and made tough choices to keep the Association on track.

How does the NYS Restaurant Association respond to the organization’s needs?

We developed a new tagline. It’s helping restaurateurs succeed. That’s so simple, but it’s so complex at the same time. It resonates well with the members that I’ve been able to speak to about the plan at this point, and they understand that we really have to narrow that focus as to how we are helping restaurateurs succeed, and is everything we’re doing focused around that. Does everything go back to that tag line?

We’re looking at some new ways to process member benefit programs, forming a task force of not just board members, but general members, too, so that they can have a say in telling us what kinds of programs they need.

The association’s creating a new board committee focused on leadership development, which is looking to find and identify new leaders for the chapters and getting the boards reactivated in some of the areas where they hadn’t been as active recently.

It starts there and it catches on. It’s only a matter of time before it spreads statewide. We want members to see the importance of the success of each area and the importance of each area being healthy in order for the state association to be healthy. And we’re examining our programs – we have to make sure that they are the best programs that we can offer, and that they really speak to the needs of the members. It all comes back to communication.

They’re looking for us to provide them with answers – on government regulations, on best practices, industry trends. So we have to find the best ways to communicate with them on all platforms, because now there are so many different varying communication platforms. To that end, the association has just launched a new Web site, with a social media component where the members can talk to each other and network. Kind of like Facebook for the association.

The Association has made a significant commitment to education. Please outline the highlights and vision.

We’re particularly proud of the ProStart program, which focuses on juniors and seniors in high school. What we’re hoping to do is promote that program more so that people know about the good things that we’re doing.

There’s been a lot of success in that program but we find that not everybody’s heard of it. And not everybody knows what we’re doing. So again, kind of back to the communication aspect of things and telling people more about the program and what we’re trying to accomplish. We do have some challenges. How do we keep track of those kids? How do we keep them engaged with the association as they move into the industry, become employees in the industry, managers in the industry and, someday, owners in the industry? We want to make sure that we don’t lose them.

If we’ve managed to have an impact on their life at 15, 16, 17 and 18, then, we want to make sure we stay focused on them throughout their career. So that, when they become owners or they become managers, they want to become members of the New York State Restaurant Association. Are there ways to structure this moving forward so that we can stay better engaged with the students? The foundation has been able to keep track of some of the students and follow them through the whole program and their graduation.

We recently completed 12 years of the Bloomberg administration. From smoking ban to the elimination of trans fat and calorie posting, there was no shortage of issues.

It’s true it was probably very challenging for restaurants during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s tenure, which included bans on trans fat and smoking in restaurants, and raising the price of sugary sodas to deter people from drinking them. We may never know what his motivation was.

But he certainly put forward a lot of restaurant initiatives while he was there. It’s incredibly complicated to run a restaurant in New York City today, because of all the different city agencies as well as the state agencies that are there to look over your shoulder. That’s why they need an association like ours.

The association has been working with members in New York to let them know they have somebody who can help them navigate that maze of city agencies and keep on top of all the different changes that are coming down the pike.

What impact will the casino referendum have on our industry?

We’ve decided to stay neutral. What we found was that the restaurateurs seemed to be quite mixed. Some think it’s a good thing, that it could drive tourism and bring in new people to the community, which would be good for all the businesses. But others are concerned that the casino, because it’s not in the food and beverage industry, tends to be able to offer food and drink items at significantly reduced prices, because their real business is casino gaming, and they’re concerned about the competition in the marketplace. Because we don’t have clear direction from our members, we stayed neutral on the issue.

The NYS Restaurant Association ran a Taste of New York showcase recently. Talk about the Association’s initiatives to promote locally grown product on New York State menus?

We brought locally grown product to New York chefs, helping restaurants learn how to build a financial model with distribution to be able to put those types of local products on their plates and their menus. The association’s been working on this for years, all the way back to Rick’s involvement with the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, where he serves as a board member on the foundation and has for a number of years, working with Jim Trezise.

Their partnership and friendship has always been a part of what we do here at the organization and how we can better promote New York wines. Governor Andrew Cuomo is really behind this. His commitment to the summit and Taste of New York has elevated it in the minds of the consumers and the restaurateurs, along with the beer, wine and spirits summit. I really have to give credit to the governor for his initiative in putting significant resources behind Taste of New York.

And also, how he’s going to solve some of the common issues that can bankrupt a restaurant, helping them find resources, and how they can use them better. One final piece of business the association is working on with the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets is a pledge for restaurateurs to use more local product in their restaurants.

Customers want more locally sourced food and beverages. It’s a big trend in the industry. We’re asking restaurateurs to use 10% more local product. Even if you’re using local products, let’s find ways to use more of it. And it can be anything – produce, dairy, meats, beverages.