Industry News

MFHA Town Hall: How the industry can address racism, drive change

“Why are Black people protesting? Well, because Blacks are dying,” said Gerry Fernandez, president of the Multicultural Foodservice and Hospitality Alliance, a partner organization of the National Restaurant Association that focuses on bringing diversity and inclusion to the food and hospitality industry by building bridges and delivering solutions.

So began MFHA’s first virtual Town Hall of its series. Held last week, executives from Union Square Hospitality Group, White Castle Management Co. and Michelle Foods signed on to discuss COVID-19, police violence and how leaders need to address the issue of structural racism as businesses reopen.

The pandemic has disproportionately affected Black, Latino and Asian communities in different ways, Fernandez pointed out. Black Americans are being hospitalized at higher rates for the disease, while Latinos are facing extreme job loss due to the economy shutting down. The Asian community has been discriminated against, being seen by some as the source of COVID-19, and have been subjected to violence in some cases as a result.

And amidst the pandemic came another tragedy, the murder of George Floyd, which spurred a community of protest, and a reawakening of the need for the country to make meaningful contributions towards ending racially biased policing.

“What’s changing the environment right now is the young people -- millenials and zoom-ers are fearless when it comes to pushing change,”  Fernandez said. “Many of us already know that in our businesses young people are asking us ‘what do you stand for, how do I know you are going to support me and develop me?'”

Neither COVID-19 nor the discussion around police violence show any signs of going away anytime soon, Fernandez said. So how can the industry support its employees in these times? Communication is key, executives agreed.

“We so firmly believe in staying engaged and in touch with our employees,” said Chip Wade, president, Union Square Hospitality Group, who also holds town halls with laid-off employees to stay engaged with the company.

“Much more communication is necessary,” Anthony Joseph, chief administrative officer, general counsel and secretary for White Castle Management Co., agreed. White Castle’s CEO shares regular video updates with the team to help employees feel more connected, and video has also played a role in the company’s newsletter where team members share their personal experiences with racism to stimulate conversation.

Addressing structural racism: Conversation & action

The role of the CEO is crucial in having conversations about race and racism as well, executives agreed.

“They’re going to set the tone. If they are not excited about diversity and inclusion initiatives, it won’t matter to the people below them,” said Wade. “That includes using his or her voice to start the dialogue, however uncomfortable it might be. The CEO has to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

The idea of getting comfortable with being uncomfortable is something white people in general can do, Wade added.

“What I mean is that it’s ok for them to ask us for ideas, thoughts and questions,” he said. “[Also,] get informed -- watch documentaries like Equal Justice and 13th. These are powerful tools for whites to get educated on what it’s like to be a Black person in America, and then build on that -- what it’s like to be a Black person in corporate America, in our industry.”

There’s endless information out there for those who want to dive in, Joseph agreed, but “we need people to meet us halfway. For African Americans, it can be difficult to stay in those conversations. I have to be honest, sometimes I’m up for those conversations and sometimes less so. It can be frustrating to deal with the level of unawareness and so there are times when we have to push through that and say we still have this obligation and this is an opportunity, and again, being responsive to the younger generations to say let’s seize this moment and try to push forward.”

Beyond talking about the issues and becoming informed, action must also be taken within the industry to address structural racism in the country. Some actions the industry can take include:

  • Getting serious about pay equity is one thing everyone can insist their organization do, and businesses can partner with organizations that are active and have expertise in this space, like the Womens’ Foodservice Forum and MFHA, Joseph said.
  • Ensure that at the large annual conferences in the industry, there is time set aside to have more “frank, straight talk conversations about diversity and inclusion, cut through all the B.S. and have more meaningful dialogue where people can listen and learn what does it mean to be a VP of operations and be a person of color?” Wade suggested.
  • Foodservice operators and retailers should also be looking for more vendors that are African American, said Michelle Hoskins, CEO of Michelle Foods, a Chicago, Ill.-based specialty breakfast syrup manufacturer. “In 35 years, I’ve never had anyone approach me,” she said.
  • Ask your CEO to sign the CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion Pledge

The role of Black leaders

Black leaders can play a role in dismantling structural racism, too, the panel agreed.

“When you find yourself in a position where you do have influence and you do have relationships in these organizations, you’ve got to use it,” Joseph said.

This includes having straight talk conversations with white CEOs, Wade said. 

“Keep pushing forward with the frank and candid conversations,” he said, adding that appropriately managing direct reports is also key.

“As we’re looking to bring on new employees and hire people, if I’m not pushing my direct reports in operations to say if you’re interviewing seven candidates and none of them are women or none of them are Black, you need to go back to the drawing board -- I think holding people accountable to say we’re going to walk our talk is critically important.”

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