With our 99th Restaurant Show over and work about to begin on the 100th anniversary celebration, CEO Dawn Sweeney shared her thoughts on the Association's future.

Not long ago, the National Restaurant Association was viewed as an advocacy group. How has that changed?
Our core mission remains unchanged. We serve our members by advancing and protecting America’s restaurant and foodservice industry. How we accomplish that mission can change over time because political, social, and technological landscapes continually shift. We have a responsibility to defend entrepreneurship and old-fashioned hospitality and regularly evaluate alternative approaches that deliver on the promise of our mission. Barriers posed by overregulation threaten our industry’s ability to grow and benefit local communities. We are committed to tearing those hurdles down.

What changes are on the horizon and what are your top priorities for the coming years?
For restaurateurs across the country, their No. 1 concern remains employee recruitment and retention. We, and our Educational Foundation, are developing solutions that address workforce development. I serve on the White House’s Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion, which is tasked with developing the next generation of employees. Our Hospitality Sector Registered Apprenticeship program, through a nearly $2 million grant from the Department of Labor, has so far placed more than 400 people into industry apprenticeships. We’re also showing our members how to take advantage of new technology and digital platforms. Online ordering, kiosks and mobile payments are quickly gaining traction so we want to help our members adopt the technologies that are right for their businesses.

Tell us more about apprenticeships and the Association’s role in piloting that career track. What are the opportunities available?
Apprenticeships create opportunities for more affordable job training and career development for millions of Americans who work in restaurants, foodservice and hospitality. Our apprenticeship initiative offers individuals interested in foodservice and hospitality careers to earn while they learn through hands-on training and classroom education. Benefits include mentoring, reduced turnover costs, increased productivity, higher job satisfaction and a more skilled, competitive workforce.

Is there anything else the Association intends to address in the months ahead, particularly as it approaches its centennial anniversary?
As we approach 2019, we are spending a lot of time charting a path for our industry’s continued growth. We are designing strategies to enable us to continue providing members with high-value services, and increase the industry’s profile across the country. The recent launch of our Restaurant & Hospitality Association Benefit Trust Health Plan, which provides a health benefits solution for small businesses with up to 99 insurance-eligible employees, is just one example of the kinds of issues we plan to tackle and solve in the future.

It appears major government concerns, like wage and benefit mandates, are being pushed down to the state level. How will that change your relations with the state associations?
They are key partners in our industry’s success. Whether we are hosting roundtables with local restaurateurs and lawmakers, eliminating harmful regulations, or rolling out new health care plans for our members, the support, knowledge and insight that state associations provide is critical. It is essential we continue to build our strategic alignments with them and promote member interest at state and local levels.