COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Though the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 dealt the restaurant industry a terrible and lingering blow, National Restaurant Association chairman Ted Fowler believes the industry is recovering nicely and could be back to normal by the end of 2002.
Fowler, president and CEO of Raleigh, N.C.-based Golden Corral restaurants, delivered the positive message to about 125 restaurateurs attending the keynote address at the Mid-America Restaurant, Soft-Serve and Pizza show Feb. 17.
"We believe that despite a somewhat slow start, sales for this year will be $408 billion industry wide," said Fowler, predicting a $9 billion increase from the NRA's 2001 forecast. "Our daily polls show that we're seeing a pretty good return to normal."
Fowler praised the industry for its noble handling of the business bust last fall in the wake of the attacks. Instead of shrugging their shoulders and ignoring the downturn, U.S. restaurateurs raised millions of dollars for New York City restaurant employees left jobless by the attacks.
"September 11 cost the restaurant industry $1 billion ... we lost 38,000 jobs in September and 58,000 in October," said Fowler.
He added that NRA surveys show "that 90 percent of restaurant owners give to charities -- higher than any other profession in the U.S.," and that he wasn't surprised at all to see the industry raise $21 million for victims of the attacks. "That's the kind of community we've become, and we should be proud of that."
Fowler said that immediately after the attacks, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Don Evans asked the NRA to conduct daily polls of restaurateurs in order to gauge the state of the industry. Fowler said Evans recognized consumer dining habits as an accurate measure of how quickly the country was returning to normal after the attacks.
Despite his enthusiasm about the industry's recovery, Fowler said operators can do more to secure the industry's future, such as joining the NRA and state restaurant chapters. Banding together, he said, increases the association's political clout and allows its agenda to be more readily heard by lawmakers.
"We represent a total of 254,000 members, and unity through membership helps us become a more vital, growing part of society," he said. "We are always at work working on changes to benefit you, such as restoring 100 percent business-meal deductibility."
By employing 11.6 million people, the restaurant industry is the largest private-sector employer in the U.S., Fowler said. Such a large and influential group needs a strong political voice, one that understands its vital role as the cornerstone of every American community.
"Tell your personal story often, talk about your (restaurant's) setbacks and triumphs," said Fowler. "It eventually will grab the attention of the politicians who can help."
Fowler's personal story includes his humble start as a grill cook at age 15. When he became Golden Corral president in 1985, company sales were $177 million. Today they're just shy of $1 billion.
"I got into this business because I was motivated by three Cs: cash to pay for a car and college," said the 53-year-old, who knew early on that he liked restaurants better than school. "I was in the half of the class that made the top half possible."
His four decades of experience, including several leadership roles within the NRA, make him confident that an economic bounce-back is well underway.
"If you're looking for signs of recovery, it depends on the geographic segment you're talking about," he said. "Those areas where travel plays a big part in restaurants are still soft, and fine dining is particularly soft."
Both of those, he added, likely will rebound the slowest due to recessionary woes, but the casual segment remains fairly strong, and he said he sees strong growth in a segment he called "adult quick serve."
"Those are places like Chipotle Grill and Panera," he said, adding that such chains' freshly prepared, wholesome foods are what adults want more often. "And family dining, like Golden Corral, is hanging in there, too."