Restaurants and Local Politics

Business and politics can be a dangerous mix, especially in today’s volatile political climate. Saying the wrong thing about a public figure or issue can lead to outrage and even boycotts. However, legislation affects everything from health code regulations to tax laws, all of which directly impact restaurants. We looked into how community involvement and being active with local trade associations can help you influence politics in the direction most favorable to your business.

Community Involvement

The well-known phrase “all politics is local” is particularly applicable when it comes to small businesses. While federal policies can certainly impact your business, changes to local regulations will have an immediate effect on your bottom line, and you can often have a direct impact on what regulations are adopted. Local councils and committees vote on these ordinances in public sessions, so having the people in your community invested in your success is a valid way of turning local politics in your favor. Make your business valuable to the community, both in general and politically, to increase the likelihood of locals voting to protect your interests. Some of the community outreach options you might consider are:

  • Workforce re-entry programs for veterans, homeless, and ex-offenders provide valuable services to the community and allow you to find workers who are often dedicated and skilled. These workforce development programs help mitigate unemployment and homelessness rates in your local community.
  • Provide sponsorships, donate goods, or offer a gathering space to charitable organizations. Sponsorships associate your business’s name with organizations considered valuable to the community, adding to your local reputation.
  • •Invite politicians to visit your place of business. Developing a personal relationship with legislators and other local politicians can come in handy when a regulation or law is being proposed that might affect your business.
  • •Most state, federal, and local lawmakers take appointments for meeting with constituents in their offices. Schedule a meeting to introduce yourself and your business to any local legislators or important politicians who are unable or unwilling to visit your establishment. You can also use these appointments to discuss regulation-related problems your business has or upcoming votes and how they might affect your operation.
  • Attend town hall events. This has the dual benefit of allowing you to make your voice heard and ensuring you are seen by your fellow citizens – many of whom may be customers – being an active participant in the community.

Banding Together

Greg Adkins is President and CEO of the Tennessee Hospitality and Tourism Association (TNHTA), an advocacy and education group that works on behalf of Tennessee’s hospitality and tourism industry. Most states have similar organizations, and many towns and cities have them as well. These associations are a great opportunity to learn more about your local hospitality industry. They’re also a way for businesses to band together to lobby for pro-business legislation on a larger scale.

“We do things like local PACs, and we give to local candidates,” says Adkins. “PACs are political action committees that are legally allowed to give money to candidates that support our causes. What we try to do is find small business candidates, ideally small business owners. We try to find those types of folks to run for office, and then we assist them. We have a local election toolkit and we talk about how to run.”

The money, time, and organization required to do these things are hard to come by as a small business, but when you band together with a trade association, combined resources open up more options.

“The issue is, it’s really hard to do something as just one restaurant, one individual,” Adkins explains. “Over the years, we’ve found that if we speak with a voice with all the restaurants and all the hotels in the community, it’s a much stronger voice. So, the first step is to get involved with their local trade association, which [for Tennessee] is the hospitality association that includes restaurants and hotels. There’s already a network of like-minded individuals that have the same issues. Restaurateurs and hoteliers are very, very busy. They don’t have the time to devote five hours a day to a cause, and that’s why the local and state associations make it easy for them to participate.”

An additional benefit of working within a network of local businesses is that news of new legislation can get around quickly, along with suggestions on how to act on that news.

“If there’s bad legislation, anti-business legislation or ordinances, we’ll communicate to all those businesses,” says Adkins. “We do calls to action; we call it grasstops and grassroots advocacy. Just participating in calls to action and writing their city councilmen or state legislators is an important thing.”

When asked about the importance of businesses being politically active, Adkins pointed out how many regulatory agencies and laws are in place specifically for the restaurant industry, and how each one can make or break a business.

“Our industry is very, very regulated by federal government, state government, [and] local government. We’re probably one of the most regulated industries out there – [by] at least a dozen agencies, between the health department, department of justice, ADA compliance, liquor licenses, beer board, fire marshal, department of labor, department of revenue – and that’s hard for a small business.”

Those regulations, Adkins believes, make working together to speak up important.

“If you’re not at the table, you’re going to be on the menu. If you participate in your trade association with like-minded people, you can exchange information and educate each other about issues. It’s hard to move the needle with one person or one business, but if every single business in the community, every single restauranteur says, ‘Hey, this is a problem,’ politicians start to look and listen.”

Courtney Barkley
Courtney Barkley

Courtney Barkley has lived in nearly as many southeastern states as most Americans have probably visited, settling in East Tennessee in early 2013. She and her husband Thomas were married during ShadoCon 2012 – an anime, gaming, and comics convention – in a ceremony that featured a reading about dinosaurs in love from a friend dressed as Doctor Who. She spends her free time chasing her brilliant and imaginative son Nathan, hanging out with friends, binge-watching shows, playing video games, and keeping up with the characters of the Marvel Universe. And, any chance she gets, she sneaks off to Florida to visit friends and the happiest place on earth – Disney World.

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