When you hear the acronym “NRA,” you probably think of the organization that is laser-focused on ensuring that this country never passes another common-sense gun law. But there’s another NRA, the National Restaurant Association, that also wields a great deal of political power in both Washington, D.C., and state legislatures across the country, all with the stated goal of supporting — and lobbying for — restaurants of all shapes and sizes.
The reality is a little more complicated than that. Founded in Kansas City in 1919 in the aftermath of a dispute between restaurant owners and the vendors who sold them eggs, the National Restaurant Association is the self-described largest “foodservice trade association” in the world. It represents the interests of tens of thousands of restaurant owners and operators across the country, but it’s not without its critics. Some suggest that the interests of restaurant owners and workers are often at odds, while others claim the group is too focused on big chains to serve mom-and-pop establishments.
Recently, the organization has come under fire after New York Times reporting revealed that proceeds from the organization’s foodservice safety certification program ServSafe, taken by thousands of hospitality workers across the country each year, were being used to lobby for laws to keep wages low for those same workers. Eater reached out to the organization for comment on these claims, and did not receive a response. At a recent summit in Atlanta, the organization’s legal arm, the Restaurant Law Center, hosted talks on how to stem an ongoing boom in unionization in the restaurant industry, which also drew criticism.
Until recently, the National Restaurant Association has been working largely behind the scenes, influencing the industry in ways that most diners aren’t even aware of. Here, we dig into what the NRA does, who it serves, and whether or not that’s a good thing for the people who actually do the work at restaurants.
What is the National Restaurant Association?
The NRA is a national advocacy group for restaurants of all kinds, from neighborhood pizzerias to major chains. The organization boasts that it represents more than 40,000 members that own or operate restaurants across the country. In addition to providing industry analysis to its members, the NRA is heavily engaged in Congressional lobbying. It is also affiliated with 52 different state and local restaurant associations to, as it says on its website, “create a truly national structure,” and these local groups also engage in lobbying efforts.
How a restaurant joins the National Restaurant Association is a surprisingly opaque process. If an individual restaurant owner in, say, Texas wants to join, the national organization directs them to their state-level group, the Texas Restaurant Association, where they can join directly and automatically obtain dual membership in both groups. Owners of larger companies that operate restaurants in multiple states or have revenues in excess of $50 million per year can join the National Restaurant Association, but its website only allows a prospective member to fill out a membership form for more details, and does not disclose what these larger chains pay in dues. At the state level, dues are determined by a restaurant’s revenues, and at least in Texas, dues range from $300 to $12,500 per year.
The organization claims broadly to represent all restaurants, but many have charged that it has prioritized the interests of large chains over small, independent establishments. As Mother Jones reported in 2022, much of the organization’s budget comes from dues paid by chains like Chick-fil-A, In-N-Out Burger, Benihana, Panera, and Waffle House. The COVID-19 pandemic was a particular flash point for this division within the NRA, as it fielded criticism from major voices in the industry, like chef and TV personality Tom Colicchio, who said that the National Restaurant Association was essentially just a “lapdog” for big chains like McDonald’s.
What kind of issues — and political candidates — does the National Restaurant Association support?
On a national level, the organization’s lobbying work centers around making it easier — and cheaper — for restaurant owners and operators to run their businesses. In recent years, they’ve focused on a couple of key issues: immigration reform with an emphasis on creating a stable workforce for restaurants; opposing increases to the tipped minimum wage; and more generous tax credits for restaurant owners (this list definitely isn’t exclusive).
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Restaurant Association lobbied to keep restaurants open, even as data increasingly showed that restaurants and bars were sites of high transmission of the virus. The organization’s affiliated PACs also donated money to Republican governors that sought to put an end to pandemic unemployment benefits, as its affiliates in states like Tennessee and Texas argued that the weekly $300 payments were keeping people from coming back to work. These political action committees have also donated to political candidates on the state and local level, almost always Republicans, and given money to single-issue groups like an organization formed to oppose a 2016 Oregon referendum that sought to impose a 2.5 percent sales tax on companies that grossed over $25 million in sales in the state each year. The PACs have also directed significant funds to groups opposing minimum wage hikes in several states, including Colorado and Illinois.
What about restaurant workers?
In January 2023, the New York Times reported that the NRA had been using revenue from its proprietary food safety course ServSafe, taken by millions of restaurant workers, to lobby against increases to the minimum wage that would benefit those same workers. Many states, including Texas, California, and Georgia, require some type of food-handler certification course in order to work in the industry, and workers typically pay for those classes, priced at around $15, out of their own pockets. As the Times points out, these workers are essentially — and often unknowingly — giving their fees to an organization that often acts against their interests. There are other vendors that offer food-handler certification courses, but ServSafe is arguably the most prominent. The organization does not provide data on what percentage of the industry uses its courses, but is widely considered to be the most common.
So does anyone lobby for restaurant workers and independent restaurants?
Outside of the NRA, there are a number of groups focused on improving wages and working conditions across the restaurant industry, along with those formed specifically to support small, independent restaurants. Formed as restaurants struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic, the nonprofit Independent Restaurant Coalition continues to lobby Congress for relief funds for these businesses via the Small Business Administration’s Restaurant Revitalization Fund.
For workers, there’s the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, an advocacy group founded in 2001 that describes itself as the “country’s oldest and largest restaurant workers-led organization that works to improve restaurant workers’ lives” and has lobbied around issues like paid sick leave, an increase to the tipped minimum wage, and racial and gender equity in the restaurant industry. The Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation is another key advocacy group that provides financial support to nonprofits working on wage fairness, gender equity, racial justice, and mental health along with public advocacy around those issues. Via its political action committees, UNITE HERE, a labor union with more than 300,000 members who work in the hospitality industry, has raised millions of dollars in support of political candidates “who support the rights and interests of working people,” including Georgia senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.
Why should I care about what the National Restaurant Association does?
The National Restaurant Association has become an increasingly powerful lobbying group in recent years, spending millions of dollars on political fights that, often, make the lives of restaurant workers harder. Some have called it a “front group” for the owners of major chains, like Yum Brands and Olive Garden parent company Darden Restaurants, who have a specific interest in keeping wages low to maximize their profits, and have the cash to pay for lobbyists that can ensure that their establishments survive while independent restaurants close their doors.
The National Restaurant Association has a major hand in shaping the industry and its power dynamics, and that power eventually trickles its way down to diners as they wonder why their favorite neighborhood spots have shuttered while massive restaurant chains like McDonald’s report record profits.