Sue Hensley of the National Restaurant Association started her Tuesday morning keynote at the Fast Casual Executive Summit with a rare bit of good economic news: For the 11th straight year, restaurant industry job growth has outperformed the overall economy.
"Our industry is one of the few small bright spots," she said.
There was plenty of uncertainty to be laid out in the NRA's "Washington Report," but Hensley's keynote in Chicago primarily focused on four victories she said the restaurant industry has experienced in the past year.
The NRA's "Kids Live Well" program launched in July. The nationwide program was "developed to both showcase some of the innovations within the industry and promote offerings of healthier options for children," she said.
Kids Live Well launched with 19 partner restaurants, including Outback Steakhouse, Denny's, Chili's, Burger King and Au Bon Pain. Hensley said the launch generated 200 million media impressions, or "millions of dollars worth of advertising."
A smart phone app is on the way, she said, which will allow parents to locate nearby restaurants that have healthy options for kids.
"This is just one example of a consumer-facing program that the NRA has participated in," she said. "It's a great way to tell our story without possibly unfriendly sources telling our story for us. Our industry is not the problem – we're part of the solution. Consumer choice and responsibility is where the focus should be."
Hensley said the restaurants industry has been "successful in heading off the patchwork of state and federal menu labeling laws" that were in the works. In its place, a new federal standard requires restaurants with 20 or more locations to provide calories on menus, menu boards and drive-thrus, and make other written info available on request.
"Having a federal standard around this is something the industry wanted," she added.
As far as compliance, she said the association will probably know the timeline by spring of 2012.
Marketing to children
Hensley cited a win over an "incredibly restrictive" marketing-to-children proposal put forth by the Interagency Working Group, a proposal that she said could spell the end of characters like Tony the Tiger or Ronald McDonald.
"These recommendations were so sweeping, it would have reached into how you create your menus, and even things like whether or not you'd be able to sponsor a little league team," she said.
Hensley said that as of last week, hearings in the House "generated some fireworks but also included some backpedaling from officials who seemed to retreat slightly" from the proposal. Final recommendations are expected later this year, but "we've seen some real positive movement there," Hensley noted.
Hensley pointed out that with the support of restaurateurs across the nation, Congress last year passed a bill that will lower swipe fees.
"There are several positive pieces to what I would say is a victory," she said. "Rates can't arbitrarily be increased. The Association was instrumental in pressing a strategy that broke a decades-long effort to reform the monopoly that companies like Visa had on swipe fees."
The bill puts a cap of 21 cents on a swipe, down from 44 cents. But, Hensley pointed out that according to NRA research, the actual cost of a swipe is only 4 cents, so the cap is "not as positive as we had hoped."
"We are working on a number of fronts on this issue – legal, legislative and messaging," she said. "This is one of our top priorities."
The Fast Casual Executive Summit was held Oct. 23-25 in Chicago and is sponsored by FastCasual.com.
Read more about trends in the restaurant industry.