QA: Catching up with RAMW President, CEO Kathy Hollinger

The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington (RAMW) has grown its restaurant industry membership base to nearly 1,000. As it approaches a century of its work, RAMW team members are at their busiest, providing advocacy, networking and business support to the area’s restaurateurs, and preparing for the annual RAMMY awards gala this July, which celebrates the best of what the local industry has to offer. In this interview with RAMW President and CEO Kathy E. Hollinger, she discusses the challenges and opportunities for the association in 2017, as well as accomplishments in 2016.

Eatery Pulse News: Tell us what important advocacy RAMW has on the agenda, and how members can become more involved.

Kathy E. Hollinger: We had a robust and impactful year and are now positioned as one of just a few voices in the business community that is called on and leading policy discussions and direction, something we have been working toward for the past five years. Conversations on the policy front are not happening without RAMW at the table, and that is an incredible success.

We are always working hard to make sure restaurants maintain choice over business operations, so they are able to thrive and contribute to the community, as well as provide jobs.

We launched a new industry of opportunity campaign with two PSAs that feature our new tagline, “Restaurants Feeding People, Careers, and Communities” which shows the public, diners, elected officials, and more that the restaurants in our membership are local entrepreneurs who choose to invest in the region. They live and work in the neighborhoods, their children go to local schools, and they create businesses that are true community gathering places.

The RAMMYS are fast-approaching, what are some highlights this year for the event both for restaurateurs and industry purveyors & vendors?

KEH: The 35th Annual RAMMY Awards will return to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on Sunday, July 30, 2017. Finalists were announced at a special ceremony on April 3 at the Hamilton in downtown D.C., where the best and brightest in 21 categories were announced. The RAMMYS honor the exceptional ability and accomplishments of the hard-working individuals and organizations of the capital region’s restaurants and foodservice community. This year we expect 2,000+ attendees witnessing awards in 20 categories in addition to the Duke Zeibert Award. Tickets include access to the reception, awards ceremony, and an unforgettable evening of food, drink, and dancing with the region’s top culinary talent.

As always, we have exciting things planned for the RAMMYS, and this year we are thrilled to announce that The Citi Open Tennis Tournament is not only returning as a sponsor, but they are also hosting their Citi Open Player’s Party inside the RAMMY Awards this year, so we will have a party within a party. For more information regarding the awards, visit www.therammys.org.

During the last couple of years, SafeTrack, including its operational disturbances, as well as reduced Metro hours of operation, have become a big obstacle for restaurants attracting business and having employees arrive as scheduled. Where do you see this headed this year and what recommendations or advocacy are you putting in place to see this improve in 2017?

KEH: RAMW has over 950 members across the metropolitan region, many of which are near Metrorail stations. Our members all recognize the importance of having a safe, reliable transport system to operate their businesses. We have surveyed our members and some express concern about getting staff to and from work during unconventional hours; others look at Metrorail to provide an affordable, convenient way for guests to reach them, while others have directly cited a reduction in sales due to the SafeTrack schedule.

2016 was an incredible year for restaurants, garnering the attention of our first Michelin Guide, and accolades from Bon Appetit naming our city the best in America. We fear that reducing Metro’s hours of operation, or increasing the cost to use the system, will slow the strong momentum among our local business at a time when we have the opportunity to thrive. We look forward to being an active voice as the Metro Board considers changes and encourage them to consider an industry whose employees and guests rely on the Metro during nontraditional hours.

Beyond the Metro, what do you see as the biggest challenges for D.C. restaurant operators this year in running their restaurants?

KEH: There are several issues facing restaurants in our region this year. Maintaining a friendly regulatory and legislative climate helps our members stay busy and support their staffs, but recent years we’ve seen a huge spike in competition as new restaurants are popping up in just about every neighborhood and community across the region. It has resulted in amazing accolades in the past year, and we welcome the competition, however at times it can increase the stress of operating a restaurant.

The buzz has built sustained growth and diversification, and with it, added competition for coveted diners. While it is unclear exactly how the President’s budget will affect local businesses, any time there are significant changes to federal government operations, there is an impact on business in the region. In recent years we have seen the immediate effect of snow days and government shutdowns, but if federal jobs are lost, it will shrink the pool of diners and ultimately result in reduced business for local restaurants that rely on neighboring federal offices to fill their dining rooms.

Rising rent prices are a huge issue for restaurant owners. In many cases restaurant operators were pioneers, making new, emerging neighborhoods desirable to residents, but their rents are up for renewal and many are faced with the decision to close or relocate.

A great deal of legislation has passed in the past four years that impacts business operations. The impact of legislative layering cannot be ignored and will be detrimental to some locally owned restaurants. D.C. is unique in that 96 percent of full service restaurants are independently owned, which puts our industry in a precarious situation at times. Increase to the minimum wage and the tipped minimum wage (legislation we supported) will undoubtedly impact operations and bottom lines. The newly passed Universal Paid Leave legislation will also impact operations and bottom lines.

Finally, on a subject dear to our hearts, industry vocation: Please share with us initiatives that you are working on that help restaurant workers and managers make a career out of the restaurant industry, and possibly prepare them for opening their own restaurants.

KEH: Workforce development is a huge priority for us, which is why we’ve joined forces with job placement groups throughout the region to bridge the gap between available jobs and qualified workforce. We recently created a hiring guide which will streamline hiring processes and are working on new, creative ways to directly connect employers with people looking for jobs.

Educated Eats is a scholarship program that has provided over $125,000 to D.C.-area students interested in pursuing a career in hospitality management, foodservice, or the culinary arts. The Frans Hagen scholarships are designed to assist individuals who demonstrate an interest in and commitment to the restaurant industry.
Scholarships are provided to both high school students pursuing a course of undergraduate culinary study, as well as to those already active in the restaurant industry who are interested in opportunities to return to school to refresh and deepen their skill set. Scholarship applications for the 2017-2018 school year are being accepted through April 23. Interested applicants can go to www.educatedeats.org to apply! Winners will be announced in May.