Navigating the evolving landscape of the restaurant industry in 2021 requires addressing both anticipated and unforeseen challenges stemming from the pandemic and political shifts, while also seizing opportunities for collaboration with policymakers to rebuild local economies.
There are two ways to look at what’s facing the industry from a legislative, regulatory, and reputational lens in 2021.
One is what we knew was coming regardless of the election outcome and the other as a result of it. The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically changed the industry’s legislative and regulatory agenda more in one year than it had changed in the previous 20. Not only were a host of new issues put on the table - dining area limitations, health and safety requirements including personal protective equipment, third-party delivery caps, alcohol delivery, cocktails to go, and liability protection, to name a few but our existing agenda of traditional business models issues like wages and benefits were now being viewed through the lens of worker health and safety. Those issues are now discussed using terms like essential worker, hazard pay, job protection for workers forced to quarantine, etc. As a result, the industry has to be prepared to message differently on these issues than we have previously.
We can’t fall into the political and reputational trap of arguing. Our workers are essential, frontline workers. When it comes to reopening guidelines and financial support from governments and they simultaneously reject calls for hazard pay, expanded leaves, and worker health and safety requirements.
It won’t wash. So we need to be more thoughtful and strategic in how we approach these issues. Additionally, states and localities are facing monumental revenue shortfalls as they absorb both the costs of the healthcare crisis they are facing on the ground as well as a simultaneous economic meltdown. They will be looking for revenue anywhere they can find it and the employer community will likely be among the first stops.
But we knew this before November and most employers have been planning and preparing accordingly. What we didn’t know was who would be running the country. We now know that despite election night rhetoric to the contrary, it turns out the Democrats had a pretty good night - they now own the White House and both houses of Congress. As a result, the industry will likely be engaged in a more vigorous national conversation around a federal minimum wage increase, potentially play a major role in brokering a workable federal paid leave process, and be involved in an additional stimulus package conversation.
But the first priorities of the Biden Administration will generally be pandemic-related. Congress as well as the Labor Department and OSHA will immediately and aggressively pursue vigorous national workplace safety standards to protect workers from COVID-19 transmission. Reversing Trump-era labor regulations will be high on the priority list as will a robust climate-related agenda, but those will have to wait until the country gets its arms around the pandemic. At both the state and federal levels, responding to COVID-19 will absorb most of the legislative and regulatory energy in 2021.
With the challenge, however, comes opportunity.
One significant unforeseen positive that has come out of the past terrible year for restaurant owners and operators is that policymakers at all levels of government and across the political spectrum have a renewed understanding of the critical role that the industry plays in not only the national economy but in the economy of cities and towns. Mayors across the country, as well as many governors, have been working hand in hand with the industry to help these businesses survive. We have not experienced anything approaching this level of understanding and partnership with local and state officials at any time in my twenty-five years in the industry. We should continue to build on those relationships and work together with policymakers to rebuild our local economies. That is the best way to protect our businesses, our employees, and our communities in 2021.
Joe Kefauver is the Managing Partner of Align Public Strategies, a full-service public affairs and creative firm that helps corporate brands, governments, and nonprofits navigate their external environments and inform their internal decision-making. Joe is a respected advisor to senior corporate executives throughout the Fortune 500 and is a valued opinion leader within many consumer-facing industries.
Before starting Align Public Strategies, Kefauver was Vice President of Public Affairs for Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. where he oversaw all state and local government matters for the world’s largest corporation. Kefauver also served as the Director of Government Affairs for Darden Restaurants, Inc. At Darden, Joe oversaw the company’s federal and state government relations programs as well as their political involvement including managing their Political Action Committee.
Kefauver currently serves as a contributing editor for Convenience Store Age, Retailing Today, Nation’s Restaurant News, Supermarket News, and Convenience Store News as well as produces the weekly Working Lunch podcast for NRN.
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