Restaurateurs Who Put Politics Front And Center
Former Pizzeria Uno and Ruth’s Chris Steak House executive Craig Miller is on the campaign trail in northeastern Florida, waging a spirited battle to earn the Republican nomination for the Sunshine State’s 6th District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Great for Miller, right?
But why is his Florida-based campaign relevant to the nation’s restaurant industry?
“The dynamic between government and business, including restaurants, is critical to the future of our nation and its economic base and, yet, we have very few people in Washington who have small-business experience. That’s driven me to step off the curb and get into politics,” says Miller, who remains involved in the restaurant business as a co-owner of two Miller’s Field sports bar locations alongside his brother, Glenn.
While few restaurateurs will travel Miller’s ambitious politically involved path–running for the U.S. House of Representatives and serving as National Restaurant Association (NRA) chairman (2005-2006)–engagement with the political structure at the local, state, or federal level, many restaurateurs agree, is simply a matter of good business.
“If we don’t have a seat at the table, then we might be on the menu,” Miller says.
Though the restaurant industry stands among the nation’s largest economic sectors, an ever-accelerating $630 billion field that employs nearly 13 million people, political participation among restaurateurs remains sparse.
Consider Greenville, South Carolina, as a case in point.
Though Greenville is South Carolina’s sixth-largest city with a population approaching 60,000, and the county in which it resides boasts nearly 400 full-service restaurants, local restaurateur Carl Sobocinski says only “two to three operators in Greenville” involve themselves in the political process.
Greenville, South Carolina restaurateur Carl Sobocinski (standing) spearheaded an effort in 2001 to repeal the local Blue Law, which prohibited Greenville restaurants from serving alcohol on Sundays.
Since Sobocinski started in the restaurant business two decades ago, he has made involvement in local politics a priority. He first attended Greenville City Council meetings to meet local leaders, later teamed with the South Carolina Hospitality Association to lobby legislators, and continues regular trips to the state house in Columbia to connect with legislators.
“If we don’t leave our restaurants and talk to legislators, we risk laws being written that aren’t good for business,” says Sobocinski, an NRA board member who heads the Table 301 Restaurant Group, which oversees five full-service restaurants in Greenville.
Legislative decisions can make a big difference
Indeed, legislative decisions can drastically alter the way operators run their units.
“You have to be as vigilant about legislation as food costs because they both impact the bottom line,” says Tom Boucher, a New Hampshire restaurateur who runs eight restaurants under the Great New Hampshire Restaurants management banner.
Still, many restaurateurs, so many of them small business-minded independents, remain on the political sidelines. But national and local issues–food trucks and menu labeling; sustainability, workers’ compensation and immigration–threaten to make the restaurant business an even tougher game.
As a young operator, former Applebee's franchisee Skip Sack rejected political involvement.
“I assumed there were other people working the political angle and that what happened, happened,” says Sack, who now runs restaurants in Massachusetts and Florida.
Slowly, however, Sack got involved with the Massachusetts Restaurant Association in the late 1980s, prompted largely by the impact of the organization’s lobbying efforts. He joined with other operators in educating state legislators on pertinent industry issues in regular visits to the Massachusetts capitol building.
“I realized there was something to this process and that there were actually open ears,” Sack says.
Sack later got involved with the NRA, eventually serving a term as its board chairman in 2004-2005. Over the years, contentious issues such as restaurant depreciation and swipe-card fees, Sack says, have become more restaurant-friendly because operators have voiced their opinions.
“A lot of people have made money and survived because there are operators speaking up,” Sack says, adding that restaurant owners, already fighting for survival in a margin-tight industry, need to make sure that officials know the issues.
In the restaurant business since the 1960s, Sack confesses that he failed to understand the activities of the state restaurant associations and the NRA.
“I thought it was all cocktail parties,” he says.
Over time, however, Sacks realized the value of advocacy.
“I recognized that I had to take a stand and not pass the obligation onto someone else,” he says. “If you don’t get active, then things are going to happen that are going to negatively impact business.”
When current U.S. House candidate Miller became president in 1986 of Pizzeria Uno, then a growing company of fewer than 100 restaurants, he sought to protect his company and other restaurant agencies from damaging legislation. That led Miller into the political arena, including a trip to Washington to lobby members of Congress against immigration laws that put the burden of enforcement on the business community.
Miller’s involvement with political issues only intensified. In 1997, he took a seat on the NRA board, working against a range of “overbearing government mandates.”
“I’ve seen numerous threats to the industry avoided because people made involvement in the political process a priority,” Miller says. “The louder the voice, the more likely you are to make a difference.”
Tighter and more onerous regulations
Over his 26 years in business, Boucher says he’s witnessed tighter and more onerous regulations. He says connecting with lawmakers allows him to highlight the potential consequences of legislative decisions, often sharing real numbers from his restaurant to better illustrate the point.
In one recent trip to Washington, Boucher talked to legislators about the impact the health care bill could have upon thousands of small businesses.
“I’m passionate about making sure our lawmakers understand the issues,” Boucher says. “I can’t sit around and wait for others to speak for me.”
Political involvement, meanwhile, is just as important–some might even argue more so–on the local level.
Jerry Morales, who operates a pair of restaurants in Midland, Texas–Gerardo’s Casita and Gerardo’s Bistro, is currently serving his fourth year as a member of Midland’s City Council.
After laws regarding signage and smoking affected his small business, Morales knew he could no longer stand idle. He ran for a council seat to be the voice of small-business owners amid the body’s corporate-connected members from the oil and gas industries. If he didn’t, Morales feared the big business mindset would install laws with little regard for the impact on small businesses.
“We need small businesses engaged in everyday politics,” Morales says. “It’s important that small business and restaurants have a voice whenever potentially damaging legislation comes about.”
Morales says The Texas Restaurant Association promotes the “Circle of Influence,” an initiative to promote restaurateurs who can play active, vital roles in the community, including parts in the political space.
“As a state association and at the local chapter level, we work to have restaurant operators in key positions, so that we have ears and hands involved in the issues that affect us,” Morales says.
And to be certain, involvement in political issues helps the industry as much as it does individual businesses.
Texas currently has three restaurateurs serving in the Texas House of Representatives, including (left to right): Rep. Mike Hamilton of Hamilton Catering in Mauriceville; Rep. Charlie Geren of the Railhead Smokehouse in Fort Worth; and Rep. Mark Homer, a Sonic Drive-In franchisee from Paris.
For instance, days after the federal minimum wage jumped to $5.85 in 2007, the New Hampshire legislature passed a law requiring operators to inform and obtain signature of employees notifying them of the change.
When the New Hampshire Department of Labor randomly audited one of Boucher’s restaurants later that year, the department levied fines on the restaurant in excess of $100,000. Though Boucher was complying with the pay standards, the restaurant’s files did not contain employee signatures.
“These labor audits and fines were typical of the largely administrative and clerical issues that hurt small businesses,” Boucher says.
Boucher and others later successfully appealed to legislators for an amendment that would afford a business owners time to correct such errors of omission.
“That’s the spirit of laws – to help business, not to play gotcha,” Boucher says.
Worked to repeal ban on Sunday alcohol sales
In another example, Sobocinski became an active advocate against South Carolina’s various Blue Laws, which restricted restaurants from serving alcohol on Sundays. He played a central role in rallying support for a countywide referendum in 2000 to repeal the ban on Sunday alcohol sales.
Though the measure was defeated, Sobocinski and a number of local restaurateurs noted that city voters favored the measure. The group obtained signatures for a citywide vote in 2001 and were successful in repealing the city’s edict and opening he way for Sunday restaurant liquor sales.
Many restaurateurs resist getting involved with politics out of fear that it will harm their units and bring undue attention, particularly since political views can be polarizing and divisive.
When Morales joined Midland’s City Council in 2008, he feared just that, thoughts complicated by the fact that his restaurants helped him support a wife and three children. Yet once elected, Morales quickly discovered that his involvement actually helped business.
“People can find me and they know my business. Better yet, they see me as someone involved and invested in the community,” Morales says.
Morales, in fact, gets compliments on his involvement and believes his council membership actually boosts his restaurants’ profiles.
“People see a true business owner, running his business, providing jobs, living and working the American Dream,” says Morales, though he acknowledges fielding considerably more donation requests now than in prior years.
Sobocinski was likewise concerned about potential negative press, particularly in his early years.
“I soon realized it was all fodder. Whoever said, ‘There’s no such thing as bad press,’ was right,” Sobocinski says, even calling his political involvement a “form of free advertisement” for his restaurants.
Sobocinski once allowed a conservative radio host to broadcast live from one of his eateries. While two individuals called to say they’d never return to the restaurant, assertions Sobocinski “took to heart,” dozens more came to the restaurant to give it a trial.
Today, Sobocinski will host Democratic fundraisers at his restaurants as easily as he’ll host Republican events. The restaurant, he says, “is for everybody,” though he maintains a policy of no in-kind events.
“It’s important to separate my personal viewpoints from the business and to not put up walls for people to see a division,” he says. “I’m not trying to stir up controversy; I’m trying to bring guests into my restaurants and ensure its future.”
As important restaurant industry issues such as health care, the estate tax, and immigration capture increased political attention, many politically active restaurateurs say now is the time for restaurateurs to become involved in politics en masse.
While acknowledging the all-encompassing nature of the restaurant business, one that often demands every ounce of one’s attention and effort, Miller pleads for restaurateurs to get involved.
“Donate to candidates who share your views. Volunteer in some capacity. Connect with your legislators,” he says. “If you like the business you’re in and want to protect it, then you need to get involved. Bring a small business perspective to public policy that is sorely minimal right now.”
As a point of entry into the political space, Sobocinski urges operators to find an issue or two they care about and to participate in that effort.
“Show you care, learn how things work, and look at the upside of learning and getting the restaurant exposure,” he says.
Boucher, meanwhile, implores vigilance.
“We need to let legislators know that we’re out here, we’re watching, and we’re a big industry very connected to the nation’s economic health,” Boucher says.
Speaking up to ensure that the restaurant industry and small business are priorities, Boucher adds, will only heighten the likelihood that politicians will be responsive. If nothing else, politicians can count.
“We’d have so much clout and voice at the table if we rallied more restaurants together,” Boucher says. “That’s a positive way to help the industry grow and to help our individual restaurants grow as well.”