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National Restaurant Association - Get to know this CEO: Rudie Martinson

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Get to know this CEO: Rudie Martinson

Who: Rudie Martinson, executive director, North Dakota Hospitality Association

About NDHA: Represents about 400 restaurant, lodging and retail beverage operations.

Background: I was 25 when I got the job. I thought for a while that I wanted to be a high school English teacher, but life took a different turn. Instead, I went into electoral politics to represent the lodging industry.

Why hospitality: This industry is a great group of people to work for, and the issues are particularly interesting. It’s kind of an unsung industry. Everybody’s been to a restaurant or bar, but they don’t always think of that as an organized cohesive industry.

Policy focus: We’re fighting the same fights as everyone else: minimum wage, leave mandates, workforce development. I had to spend a lot of time explaining the tip credit to the legislature. It’s hard for them to understand what a server actually makes. It’s not $4.86 an hour; it’s actually much more than that.

Recent policy win: The North Dakota legislature passed a bill that I’m pretty proud of. It wasn’t my idea, but we lobbied in favor of it last session. It limits damages in lawsuits for businesses that train their employees. Showing that you’ve done the training is a mitigating factor if you get dinged on a compliance check.

Land of opportunity: We have a lot of new and expanding businesses, thanks to the state’s economic boom from oil, natural gas and agriculture. Take Tioga, a small town in the heart of the oil patch. It’s tripled or quadrupled in size, and the restaurant industry is growing. One of our members, Susan Gordon, moved there from California to open Wildcatz Grill and found a lot of success. And there’s sushi in a town not far from that. If you had told me 15 years ago that you could get really good sushi in Watford City, I wouldn’t have believed you.

Boom or bust? There are tens of thousands of unfilled jobs, not just in our industry. Another challenge is that we don’t have a legislative session every year. The lawmakers are there only every other year to appropriate dollars, but the state’s needs are ongoing.

Investing in the future: For years, all the young people moved away after college. Now, if you want to stay in North Dakota and make a career, we want to provide as many tools as we can to make that possible. That’s the appeal of ProStart, which we began offering this fall. We want to keep these kids around and working in our industry.

Hometown hero: I grew up in Bismarck, but I’m originally from Williston, out in the oil patch. North Dakota’s my home; I love living here. If everybody leaves, there’s not going to be anybody left to make it better.

Getting involved: Being involved in your association ensures it does the things you want it to be doing. And policy makers need to hear the industry’s voice. I perform that function in a lot of situations, but a lot of times, legislators want to hear directly from the operators, rather than their hired guns. Many decision-makers don’t have a close familiarity with the hospitality industry. Maybe they tended bar or waited tables in college, but they don’t have day-to-day operational knowledge.

Friend or foe: Sometimes it’s difficult to get people to leave their restaurants and the businesses they’ve built to talk to decision-makers or attend a hearing. People don’t open restaurants or bars because they love going to committee hearings or doing payroll; they get in for the love of the game. I can bridge that: I show them the decision-makers really aren’t that scary; they’re really just your friends and neighbors on the city council. Or your state legislators. They really are just your fellow citizens. Eventually, these folks are going to wander through your restaurant. Even you invite a lawmaker to visit, don’t immediately run over and start talking politics. But be educated on the issues just in case it case it comes up.

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