December 5

A Brief History of the National Restaurant Association


From Eggs in Kansas City To Becoming a Lobbying Powerhouse, Here’s a Brief History of The National Restaurant Association 

The National Restaurant Association has been around for over 100 years now. While their agenda may not represent the entirety of our industry, they’re still a lobbying powerhouse worth paying attention to. 

Holding groups like the National Restaurant Association accountable is essential to bring significant change to our industry. So, no matter how you feel, it’s wise to be somewhat familiar with the organization and their actions to represent our industry! 

Let’s dive in and see how the NRA (not to be confused with the other NRA) came to fruition and continues to truck along!

It Started With The Egg

In the NRA’s case—the egg came before the chicken. 

Post WWI, the restaurant industry, as we know it, was taking off in the United States. Restaurants were becoming destination spots for socializing and entertainment rather than solely used for practical purposes by those residing in rooming or boarding houses.  

Many restaurateurs of the time were members of local rotary clubs. In these groups, small business owners connected over similar challenges and solutions. 

Quickly, many realized they were more potent when unified, and in 1916, one of the first localized associations, known as The Kansas City Restaurant Association, came together. At the same time, a similar group formed in New York.

And what good timing, because after the war, farmers raised the price of eggs to a whopping 65 cents a dozen! An outrage of the times, to be sure. With the power of collective resistance, the Kansas City Restaurant Association’s boycott lowered the price to 32 cents a dozen. 

After the success of the egg dilemma, the chicken hatched. Sixty-eight restaurateurs nationwide met in Kansas City to pledge their support and organize the National Restaurant Association on March 13, 1919. 

From there, the first NRA convention was held on December 1st, 1919, with 200 attendees from across 14 states coming together to discuss the potential of a unionized workforce (some things always stay the same). 

Despite Prohibition, The Great Depression, and WWII—the restaurant industry persevered and grew exponentially into the later half of the 20th century. With it, so did the NRA, creating local affiliates and wielding more political influence at both the state and federal levels to help the restaurant industry thrive. 

The National Restaurant Association Today 

Today, the National Restaurant Association still serves as the lobbying arm of the restaurant industry. Each state has its own affiliate association, which works in conjunction with the National Restaurant Association. 

If a restaurant wants to join the association, typically, they would join the state organization and could receive a dual membership—unless they own restaurants across state lines and bring in an annual revenue of a certain amount, in which case they join the National Restaurant Association and pay dues to the national organization.

The NRA advocates on behalf of restaurants on a few topics, including: 

  • Preserving the tip credit 
    According to the NRA website, tipped income and tip credit benefit workers and owners. The NRA is committed to working against legislation that would eliminate either. 
  • Immigration Reform
    The NRA recognizes the contribution that immigrants have made to our culture and industry. They support securing the border and promoting more pathways to legalization and working visas. 
  • Tax Policy and Tax Credits
    The NRA supports passing a few bills impacting small business taxes, including the Employee Retention Tax Credit (ERTC) Reinstatement Act and the Permanently Preserving America’s Investment in Manufacturing Act. 

While this isn’t the extent to which the NRA is focused, these are vital issues they claim to support on their website to help restaurants stay open. 

In addition to their government advocacy for the restaurant industry, the organization invests in research, development, and education. They are the providers of the well-known food safety manager certification, ServSafe. 

The NRA & Their Critics  

Over the years, the National Restaurant Association has come under fire for investing in legislation prioritizing larger chains and franchises. Also, by supporting the tip credit, they have been accused of funding legislation that keeps worker wages and union opportunities down. 

Many restaurant owners and workers across the nation understand that the tipping culture in the US has a dark history and that it continues to propagate foundational issues that prohibit our industry’s stability—like pay discrepancy, racism, sexism, and income insecurity.  

There is a movement of businesses attempting to change the status quo by raising menu prices or adding service charges instead of tips to offer their employees livable wages and benefits

The NRA’s firm stance in preserving the tip credit and tipped wages can be seen as out of touch with the actual needs of the current industry. 

By focusing all their efforts on a cause that more and more cities and states are moving away from, they are ignoring other ways these restaurateurs could use support from our local and federal government. For instance, rent regulations or tax breaks for raised wages and benefits.  

At the start of 2023, the NYTimes reported that the revenue gained from the NRA’s nationwide food safety certification program funds the lobbying efforts against raising minimum wages. 

According to the NYTimes article, “…in taking the class, the workers—largely unbeknown to them—are also helping to fund a nationwide lobbying campaign to keep their own wages from increasing.” 

Additionally, during the heat of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NRA fought to keep restaurants open and contributed funds to governors attempting to end pandemic-related unemployment benefits. 

While these efforts can be seen to support restaurant businesses and workers by creating jobs—they also ignore severe issues in our industry that need to be addressed, like the safety, health, and financial security of our workforce and meaningful aid for business owners. 

Other Advocacy Groups To Know About

Now that you know a little bit more about the NRA than you hopefully did three minutes ago—you might be for or against their agenda. 

If the NRA’s agenda doesn’t align with your goals and hopes for our industry—all is not lost. Other groups are advocating policy at the local and federal levels to support restaurant businesses in raising wages, offering benefits, and supporting the industry’s workforce by breaking the status quo. 

You can look into and get involved with the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC), which came about in response to the COVID-19 Pandemic. You may remember them from the RESTAURANTS Act, which created a $28.6 billion grant program for independent restaurants in the American Rescue Plan. 

Today, the IRC continues to advocate for change on behalf of the nation’s independent restaurants and bars in Congress.

Another group is the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, a non-profit representing and supporting the industry’s workforce and owner-operators in participating in public discourse and workplace policies. 

We spoke with Jayanthi Daniel, the executive director of the RWCF, to learn more about their goals for the coming year. You can listen to that discussion on our YouTube channel

There are also more local groups, like Good Work Austin, advocating to help restaurants in Texas raise wages and offer more for their employees. 

Our industry needs government support, so having groups that represent the needs of the industry and align with our goals is essential. 

So, no matter your goals, wishes, or needs, knowing more about what groups represent you at the local and federal levels, their agendas, and whether they align with your own is necessary to support the right cause and make real change!


About the author

Ashley McNally likes to cook, loves to bake, and is always dreaming of her next meal. With over 13 years of experience working in various roles within a restaurant — McNally has made a home in hospitality.

About the author

Ashley McNally likes to cook, loves to bake, and is always dreaming of her next meal. With over 13 years of experience working in various roles within a restaurant — McNally has made a home in hospitality.


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