Sunday, August 30, 2009

Ted Kennedy & the restaurant industry

The restaurant industry lost one of its steadfast adversaries last week, the legendary Sen. Ted Kennedy. Even his bitterest opponents wouldn’t disrespect such a man by relishing his passing. But some in the business may secretly harbor relief, remembering Kennedy’s ardent fight for minimum wage hikes, worker benefits like parental leave, and any number of measures that foisted new costs and responsibilities on the trade.

It’s a shame their ideology blinds them from learning two key lessons from a 46-year public servant who undoubtedly ranks among the most committed ever to serve in the U.S. Senate.

At the very least, they should appreciate the fervor that drives someone who’s acting out of conviction to his ideals. Often, though less so today, restaurateurs oppose a law, regulation or social movement solely on the basis that it’ll cost them money, time or aggravation. They seem flummoxed that an undue burden on business isn’t enough of an objection to halt the other side.

The fallback is to equate the burden to lost jobs, as if anyone would really believe their motivation is keeping entry-level employment at the highest possible level.

Financial hardship is certainly a valid reason to oppose a measure. But some restaurateurs fail to appreciate that their opponents may, like Kennedy, be pushing a measure because they burn with the certainty it delivers a higher good. Arguing that something will cut profits just seems callused when the other side is insisting with conviction that a change in the status quo will help families, children, education, the underprivileged, social well-being, upward mobility, the hungry, or just leveling the playing field. Shortchanging investors or business owners is hardly the kryptonite counterargument against such righteous zeal.

It’s especially important for the trade to appreciate that ardor as values are reshaped by the recession. In a great social paradox, being harder pressed for money has prompted many people to downgrade its importance and elevate intangibles like connection, quality of life or having purpose. The industry can see it in dynamics like youngsters accepting lower wages for a position that resonates more with their principles. Is working for a greener company worth collecting 50 cents less an hour? How many of you would doubt it?

Similarly, survey after survey has shown that consumers are willing to pay more at a business that assumes a responsibility to the environment. Even with less to spend, they want to spend it with principle. Economics are trumped by values.

So what’s the industry to do to protect its business interests in a reasonable fashion?

As the posthumous tributes have all noted, Kennedy was the master of compromise and coalition-building. For too long, the industry’s lobbying position could be summed up as, “No.” No way, no how, no further discussion. Pitched opposition was the default setting.

Wouldn’t it be better to be a little Kennedy-esque? To work with adversaries and allies alike to find alternatives that protect business without drowning out other concerns, or refusing to shoulder some of the burden needed to benefit society as a whole?

The trade did it with the menu-disclosure bills that were introduced last year—accepting the concept of calorie counts being posted on chain menus, but tempering the requirements to ease the wallop.

Some industry old-timers must’ve clutched their chests when they saw the business calling for menu labeling, once the trade’s Freddie Krueger of causes.

But it will hopefully serve as a working model, in part because attitudes are changing within the industry’s workforce. An associate who works with tomorrow’s management says his young charges can’t understand why the business is always lining up on the wrong side of issues—matters like health, or worker benefits like sick leave, or, most pointedly of all, the environment. They’re often dismayed, if not embarrassed, by the trade’s political stance.

You can readily see it in the greening effort. Staffs are impatient with their employers’ commitment to sustainability. More expensive? So what? Many would no doubt favor government mandates to force the movement along.

The industry should do itself a favor and harness that zeal. With a little of what Kennedy practiced, it could use their ardor to hammer out a solution, instead of fostering a split between old and new attitudes.

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