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[SHOWNOTES] Barbara Polk, CAO at the National Restaurant Association: Keeping Restaurateurs On Trend – ECEO029

[SHOWNOTES] Barbara Polk, CAO at the National Restaurant Association: Keeping Restaurateurs On Trend – ECEO029

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What is the mission of the National Restaurant Association?

I think it’s twofold. The first is we believe strongly (and I too believe strongly) that we are, quite frankly, one of the few remaining entrees into the middle class. One could join a restaurant as a dishwasher or as a cashier and work their way up and be able to provide for their families. It could be a manager of a restaurant that could work their way up through the ranks. It’s a really fascinating component.

The other mission of the National Restaurant Association is advocacy, making sure, as one of the nation’s largest job creators, that we are (hopefully) making the appropriate messaging and the appropriate case for supporting restauranteurs throughout the country.

How does your mission influence the events that you produce?

I suspect that because we are restauranteurs primarily with some supply chain the spirit of hospitality is real. Restauranteurs want to feed you. They want to make you feel at home. They want to make you feel part of their family. They are the bedrock of their communities.

Our events are always around food, quite frankly. We have one of the largest shows at the convention center in Chicago every May in North America. I think last year we had close to 75,000 people. We also have a partnership with Bar. We have Jon Taffer, so you can have great food and drink, get the latest and greatest. We have a technology component, so people can see what’s out there that can enhance the restaurant experience. We have supply chain partnership.

We have that, and we also have executive study groups, where we bring together IT, audit and finance, and supply chain. It allows folks to come together… We have the pizza council! We try to bring together like-focused individuals to really share and figure out what best practices are, what to avoid, what’s the latest and the greatest. We have technology forums…

Typically, it’s really about how we bring people together so that their businesses can be more profitable, so they can learn from each other.

Are you doing separate tracks? Are you doing general sessions? Has any of that changed over the years? How is the format?

It’s a little bit of both. As the convention has grown, we have also had year-round opportunities and events that go on. We even have an international component, where we bring together folks from other parts of the world who are interested in what Americans are doing. Many of our members have franchises or restaurants in other parts of the world, so it’s really important to them to understand that lay of the land and to increase their partnership and familiarity with different markets.

It’s gone from just being that big show in the spring to broadening to a year-round approach. Our board members, for example, and our members of the association are really active and very committed to helping each other. We also have a foundation. We do events and we have an organization under the foundation’s umbrella called “ProStart,” and we have a military component as well. We just embarked on an apprenticeship partnership with the Department of Labor.

I guess the best way to state that part about the foundation is – how many of us had our first job in a restaurant? That’s really the story. We’re trying to make sure that we create that funnel for people to see the restaurant industry as a career, whether it’s preparing food or managing restaurants or going into other facets of the business. The foundation provides scholarships, nationwide programs where people learn culinary and management concepts, and support people in the military as well, so when they come out of the military they can have fruitful experiences in the restaurant industry.

Are you serving your full constituency in that environment at your annual convention? Or is just a portion of your members?

It’s our full constituency, and it’s gotten fairly large to the degree that it’s a must. It’s something you must go to. You’ll have vendors there selling everywhere from the latest and greatest in flatware to a very popular moonshine stand a couple years back, where people were showing food and beverage, and the beverage component is a big chunk of how people make their revenue in the restaurant industry. It’s not just the food, but it’s the cocktails and the bars, and just how sympatico that is.

I think there is a really broad base that will attend this show, and then the subsets of those individuals, as I mentioned before, like the pizza component, or “I want to learn more about marketing,” or “I want to learn more about IT.” It wasn’t too long ago that Panera didn’t have the iPads. Now you walk in, you place your order through an iPad. People want to understand. How does that work? Is it successful? Is that lessening the human touch? What does that mean? Drones, you name it…

Are you establishing metrics for success prior to having the event, and then how do you evaluate them post event, and what are they?

Obviously attendance is big. We want to make sure people are coming. And our continued relevancy. I think we’re really at the cusp of something, and our executive that presides over that – her name is Mary Pat Heftman – has a lot of concerns. She’s trying to be very proactive in that people can get their information in a variety of ways. We try to make sure that we’ve got everything. We’ve got Twitter going. Simultaneously people can access through video. We live stream. We also have something called a signature event, where we try to bring the latest and greatest minds. Our CEO Dawn Sweeney moderates a number of panels.

Part of our success metrics is “Did you get something out of this experience? What takeaways would you have not had exposure to?” In addition to butts in the seats, we’re also trying to evaluate what the experience was. That’s why they’re going – they want the experience. Adding the bar, the beverage component, people are getting exposure to artisan cocktails. They’re getting exposure to ethnic foods. We have the opportunity to touch a lot of folks in a way that they can go back to their small business, large franchise operation, and think, “Wow, I have a different idea or an opportunity,” or “I made a connection that I would not have made otherwise.”

Are these anecdotal results you’re collecting, or are you doing any kind of survey?

We do formal surveys. Because many of these folks are members and there is some overlap with our board members, we get real, live feedback! In addition to serving folks and asking them about what their experience was, everything from registration to the events that they attended, we actually have both members and board members who will give us the feedback whether we want it or not. The show is quite an iconic thing in our industry.

How big is the exhibitor environment there because I’m assuming that is a sponsored environment?

We pretty much take up the entire convention center at this point. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Chicago, but it is huge. I mean, you’re wearing sneakers because after three days on the floor, you can barely walk. We’ve got people on waitlists. That’s another thing that’s interesting, trying to make sure that we stay current and also loyal to folks who have exhibited for years, but making sure that we can provide space and bring some new faces and some innovation is definitely a juggling act.

Since these are your sponsors as well, what is that strategy to not only keep them and find them, but to meet their expectations? That has changed over time. People are not just interested in a sign anymore. What are you doing to satisfy the sponsorship piece?

Two things. One, we definitely try to be flexible because they may be trying and piloting some new ideas to garner more traffic to the locations that they have. Obviously people are very competitive about the space. They want to make sure they’re getting the appropriate traffic, trying to create venues, sub-venues, and also activities and things that will draw people to different parts of the convention center at different times of the day. It really allows them to get the impact that they want.

We also, quite frankly, try to help them understand what other groups are doing. Part of what’s happening is while they’re at the event, people on their teams are going out and looking and seeing what’s happening, but we also will share that table, and a backdrop is not going to do it. What are the other things that you might offer? Do you want to offer the food sample? Or maybe you want to do something where people actually have some interactive [piece] and can make their own? There are lots of ways that people learn by doing and learn by seeing, and we try to facilitate that.

It is very competitive. Sometimes we have to make tough choices, but I think we have a strong, loyal base of folks that have been coming for years, probably some for decades, and we try to help them with their constant evolution.

That activation piece is becoming more and more important, as we were talking about at lunch. The contention is a passive audience is not what you want. You want an active audience. You want participants.

People are live-streaming at their booths. We also just did a minor uptick in our sponsorship fee structure, and to justify that, we’ve got to bring it, too. We’ve definitely tried to create a venue and create an experience in which they benefit and they can drive how many folks are now coming to them, whether it’s business or asks or networking opportunities that wouldn’t have existed if they hadn’t come to the show.

Are they also on panels?

Yes. We have education components. We have lots of activities in which we draw people out and say, “Don’t miss this!” You’ll have the big-ticket events, and you’ll have the evening events, but we also have things that are happening in real time throughout the show.

Are you using any platforms to push notifications out to people and suggest that something is happening?

We do. That’s happening nonstop. I think if you were to come to the show (and you will definitely be on the invite list this year), you would see as you walk through that you’re just inundated with not just visual, but you’re compelled to stop and look at this video screen and understand what’s happening. There could be a learning snapshot right there. You’re being told, “Walk straight and make a left, have a bite to eat. Now stay here, and there’s an education event that’s happening.” It’s just constant. I think the bar component is great, too because it’s on another side of the convention center, so now we have activity and movement in a way that we didn’t have.

Do you use the whole space?

The whole space.

We were talking at lunch about how we might have some introvert tendencies, although no one really would believe us – that that’s the case. How do you handle that psychographic mix? Do you have quiet spaces? How do people refresh and replenish? That’s kind of a trend – organic. The millennials are looking for some of that. We’re all looking for a little bit of the meditation, yoga, and those kinds of things. How do they play out in your environment?

We do have a lot quiet space. I think because the convention center is so vast, there are lots of mini seating areas, lots of places where people can get a bite to eat. I think what we learned from the first year that we did the bar is we didn’t have enough lounging areas, which is kind of counterintuitive in a way. What we found is people want to taste, try different things, sit down, have conversations with each other. We’ve created micro seating areas there. We pretty much take over the whole city, so we try to have evening events at different venues. At House of Blues we have a big event that’s sponsored by a number of our partners.

People come back year over year, and they have these expectations. “What are you going to do this year?” Whether it’s something fun like a tribute band to a refined tasting or silent auctions. We have all of these events that are very organic. You’ve got the daytime events in the convention center. You have things in the evening. There’s breakfast. We have all sorts of chefs that are doing presentations, and (as you know) chefs are celebrities. You bring a Bobby Flay in, and people want to meet them. They want to understand and taste their food and see what the trends are. We definitely play on our celebrity piece.

Are you doing any smaller intimate events in the restaurants themselves in the evenings?

Oh, yes. You could talk to a cab driver in Chicago during the show, and everybody knows the show is going on. Everyone knows the restaurants are poised and excited because when people come out of the convention space, they’re having dinners. Our members are restauranteurs, obviously, so they’re making sure that they’re talking about their restaurants, their new venues – the tried and true where people want to go and they say, “Every time I come to Chicago, I must eat here.” It’s a great revenue boost for the city. Chicago is going through a rough time right now in the media in terms of presenting it in one way, but I see it as an extraordinarily vibrant city, and it’s just an amazing experience when you go there during this period. It is literally all about the show.

The city is an interesting component. This is a huge convention for the city. As you said, you take it over. How are you branding across the city? How are you activating the city? How are you working with the city government?

Admittedly, I’m not as close to them as I am about other aspects of the association, but the person I mentioned earlier, Mary Pat Heftman, she has actually been in this role for over 26 years. She runs deep in terms of her relationships and her tenure within all facets of the Chicago-land experience. Whether it’s the political spectrum or the business spectrum, she has, quite frankly, so much gravitas right now in the city that we’re really fortunate in which not only is the city just happy and thrilled… Unlike certain shows that are affiliated with associations, we’re not moving city to city. Our home is Chicago, and we have offices in Chicago with about 160-some-odd people, so we work there, too. This is year-round. We’re sponsoring things in the city. We definitely show our respect.

Are you activated at the airport? Are people seeing decals and brands and city signage and bus wraps?

Absolutely. You got it. It’s interesting in the sense that just anecdotally because we are there every spring, as I mentioned earlier, everybody from the cab driver to the restauranteur, the people working in the restaurant, they know that this is that time of year that they’re going to be inundated with folks coming into the city solely for this purpose, and then it spills out into other parts. Everyone benefits.

We’ve talked about Chicago a lot, and you did mention earlier that you do events overseas. What are some of the bigger challenges related to doing events abroad?

We don’t do events overseas. We actually have folks who come to the show from overseas. That is definitely something that we’re looking for for the future. What we have done differently is last year, for the first time, we ran another show. We did the New England Food Show. That’s happening next week again, so that will be our second year.

People go to that for different reasons. It’s much more of a regional show. Interestingly enough, we were asked to help them out and to grow the show and to bring some of our expertise, and it was very successful year one, and year two we’re hoping for even more success. It may be something that’s another revenue stream opportunity for us, but definitely looking at some international partnership is on our to-do list for the future.

Would you do west coast as well? Does it make sense now that you have three regions?

I think because of Chicago’s placement, we’re not sure that we’d get the value add by going to the west coast, but certainly I think what we try to do with our smaller activities, like the executive study groups (ESGs) and the pizza councils and all these other groups, we do those throughout the country, so there’s a bit of a footprint there, but Chicago as of now is kind of our home base for the show.

Your industry in general has tons of events. Are there any kind of things that you would pluck out that really distinguish your events from others in that industry?

I think it’s because this is the one place where everybody comes. You could literally come to the show and have a plethora of experiences, whereas if you went to one show, it might have more of a focus on ethnic food or technology. It could have something specifically to do with entrepreneurship or franchise focus. You can get all of that in one place.

How are trends in organic and participatory experiences influencing the tone and tenor of your events?

One of the things that’s fascinating is we have this research group. We have ongoing pieces, but we have this one big component that we put out our prediction about what will happen in the future, but obviously it continues to be ethnic food. It’s sort of interesting because you’re seeing these companies spring up where people are preparing food at home… I think we’re of two minds about that, right? We’re glad that people are eating. We’re glad that people are consuming. We would prefer that they do it at a restaurant.

How do we create opportunities, or look at our restaurants in the sense of how people are eating now, and what are they looking for? Are they looking for more communal experiences? Do they want fine dining? Are we going to be done with burgers soon? Why are people obsessed with Chick-fil-A? I read an article the other day where Chick-fil-A had some permitting issue in New York City, and people were beside themselves, standing outside, befuddled about what to do. Trying to figure out what the next trend will be, and also trying to be predictive about what will continue to be strong in terms of the build…

Still we’re in that farm-to-table, and what does that mean and what’s the next thing that will happen. I think people are very mindful about what they’re eating. No one would have thought about vegan and gluten-free in the same way. Who knew we would be eating kale and quinoa? It’s ethnic foods, it’s different trends. It changes our eating patterns. It changes what we do. They put things on pizza now that you would never have eaten a million years ago. It’s just constantly evolving, and our taste buds are changing, and what we want and what we think is normal… Italian food is no longer considered ethnic food anymore. Ethiopian food and Thai food are not even considered ethnic food anymore. It’s fascinating to me.


And millennials, as you know, they’re wine and beer drinkers. They’re not hard alcohol drinkers. They want the craft experience, the homemade. They want homemade pickles in the restaurant. They want to know where their food comes from. They want the want the experience. They tend to be a little bit more health aware, so they’re not looking for a giant bowl of something. They really want to know that it’s fresh. They want to know that they can be selective about what they pick and what they eat. They want to know where it came from. They want to know it was grown without animals being harmed. It’s really about the experience and the story you’re telling about the food that you’re making. That’s one of the things I find so fascinating about the industry because it doesn’t stay the same. I mean, there are some core things that stay the same – hospitality, eating. But how you eat, food trucks…

Can you share any of the trends that you think are coming our way?

It’s going to be fascinating because we had UberEATS at our show last year, and they were talking about the partnership of restaurants because people don’t have the time and they want to eat in the comfort of their home – how do we bring food to them? It’s in the best interest of the restauranteur to be in that role. Food trucks, for example. Before, they were these standalone entrepreneurial pieces. Well, now some of the restaurants have their food trucks.

I think it will continue to evolve, where we’re trying to figure out what that customer wants and just be just in time, but I went to an event last year, where we had a futurist there, and they said, “Close your eyes, and it’s 7:00 on a Friday night in a restaurant, and who is there?” We all closed our eyes, and it’s people in their sixties. It’s not what you think. That means that the worker might be older, the consumer might be older – what does that all mean? It may not be what you’re thinking in terms of the millennial. They’re actually a smaller footprint than the Gen-X and the Baby Boomers.

It’s so interesting in what this next generation’s influence will be, especially as millennials start to make more money.

What they spend money on is different. They want to be in a tiny house and have more experiences.

I wonder if restaurants will also have more opportunity to participate while you’re at the restaurant. Instead of them making guacamole at my table, I could be making guacamole at my own table.

Well, it’s interesting you say that because obviously the open-restaurant concept comes from people wanting to see how their food is prepared and feeling they’re a part of the steam, the smells.

You guys are clearly cutting edge on so many levels. How are you leveraging that through social media? How do you use that as a platform to create momentum?

I think that’s a real opportunity for us to expand. We recently hired a new CIO. In many ways, there are aspects of our business that make technology first and foremost, so I think a lot of organizations have made a lot of changes over the past decade because technology is just ever changing and ever growing. I think the industry looks to us in many ways to be that aggregator and be on the cutting edge, so it is a big focus for us in terms of “How do we leverage what we do to not only be an example to the industry, but also how do we look in the industry and figure out who is doing it amazingly well, and highlighting that and sharing?” That’s in our top five in terms of our strategic plan. What are we going to do to continue to be present and engaged in the leading edge in how technology and the food industry are hand in hand? I think everyone is grappling with it within any industry, but particularly in the restaurant industry. So much of it is organic and hands on in some facets of our business, and in the other, larger franchises, it’s how quickly you can get the information out, how quickly you can get the food to people, how quickly you can switch up your menu in such a way to make a profit. It’s the human touch versus how you use technology. I don’t think any of us want to be in a position where you’re interacting with a robot for your meal, but there are some parts of technology that help us bring the food fresher and quicker that we should probably exploit.

At the beginning of this, I mentioned you’re someone I’ve gotten to know over the last year, and I’ve actually relied on you as a bit of a mentor, actually. I’d love to ask you a few mentorship questions. What’s your best personal or business hacks that you would suggest for both our executive audience and our event audience?

This is an evolution for me, too. We’re all very, very busy, and I really have been making much more of an emphasis over the past year to make sure that I carve out time to really be present and interact with folks in a meaningful way. That means that I might be having five coffees that week with people, just to touch base and see how they’re doing, and then remembering the next month I haven’t really had a good conversation with them. I need to make sure I connect with them, and that may be just I’m near their office and I’m going to stop by and say hello, or I happen to be in the town that they’re in, just making sure I make those connections and follow up. I think that that’s really something that we take for granted. If we say that these relationships are important, we have to feed them. I’ve really been making more of an effort, and I see the rewards of that. I see when I make a request or when I’m having a conversation, there’s just a readiness and there’s an understanding because we’ve been able to have those kinds of interactions. They know exactly where I’m coming from, and I know exactly where they’re coming from and what their pain points are. It’s something that we don’t really think about as much as we should.

It’s personally satisfying, too. Not only are you in that leadership/mentor role, but you’re also satisfying something in you as well, given that we’re all so busy. Are there any apps that you use to get it done a little quicker or get it a little more organized or saner?

It takes a village. I have a family, and I have given up on arguing and fighting with my children on the variety of chores. I pick my core things I need them to do, and everything else I figure out. I think our time is so valuable, and I don’t want to spend it doing laundry. I send my laundry out. It’s something magical. It comes back shrink-wrapped. It’s actually pretty reasonable. I did the math. I thought, “Well, if I’m not using my water and my time and wear and tear…” Not to say that I don’t do any laundry at all.

It sounds silly, but when you talk about interacting with your kids, I try to do things on the weekend where I’m cooking, and one child of mine really likes to cook, and I try to engage her. We cook things on the weekend, so we have some meals for the week. I try to make sure that I think about my day a little bit more intuitively, so I’m not driving around in circles, and I also don’t have to do everything. I don’t have to touch everything. I don’t have to do everything. I need to trust that people are clear, and worst-case scenario, if it doesn’t exactly happen the way I want it, I have to step back from it, and if the world didn’t end, it’s a learning experience for everyone.

What kind of professional development expectations do you have of your team?

I really believe in continuous learning. I think if there’s one thing that I have a bend towards, I love people who are intellectually curious, and I think I tend to hire folks and try to cultivate that in people I’ve inherited. I love to read. You know this about me – I like books. I like the way they feel and smell, so I’m not saying that I won’t read an e-book, but I do like books and book clubs. We actually do something called an “annual leadership forum,” and we bring together all the leaders of our organization once a year for a two-day event, where we do team building, we bring in external speakers, and we really try to create opportunities for people to interact and to think big thoughts, and it’s OK to be audacious, and there are no wrong answers. We’re going to go in our third year, and it’s really amazing what I’ve learned about people when you take them out of their normal and mix people up. You’ve got the accountant talking to the marketing person talking to someone in meeting planning, and they realize that they probably had completely different notions about each other, and it makes it better.


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GUEST: Barbara Polk

Barbara Polk is chief administrative officer for the National Restaurant Association. In this position, she has overall strategic responsibility for information technology, legal, human resources, internal communications, board operations, executive office operations and facilities/office services. In addition to oversight of these key operational functions, she ensures the association has the proper controls, administrative and reporting procedures, and people systems in place to support sustainable enterprise growth in the service of members, customers and partners.

Barbara has more than 20 years of experience in human resources and operations with broad expertise in M&A, global real estate, organizational development, board governance and strategic execution. She has held senior leadership positions at the American Red Cross, Ellucian, XO Communications, and Reading is Fundamental. Barbara received her Bachelor of Arts from Rutgers University.

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