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Georgia Restaurant Assoc. leader speaks to Buckhead group
by Everett Catts
March 27, 2014 03:58 PM | 4471 views | 0 0 comments | 26 26 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Karen I. Bremer
Karen I. Bremer

The general public may not have the complete picture when it comes to the state’s restaurant industry.

That was the message from Georgia Restaurant Association Executive Director Karen I. Bremer, who spoke at the Buckhead Business Association’s breakfast meeting Thursday at City Club of Buckhead.

“My organization’s primary responsibility is advocacy of the business. … It’s my responsibility to make sure our elected officials understand the depth and breadth of our industry,” she said. “They’re usually on the same wavelength as restaurants because they come from small businesses. When you look at a large corporation like Chick-fil-A, it’s a large company but each unit is individually owned and they have needs.

“I think a lot of people have a different perception of the reality of owning a restaurant business. When an onerous piece of legislation gets passed, it’s my job to reach out to those restaurant owners and explain to them on how to comply with the new law. Not knowing about the law is never a good excuse.”

Bremer, in her 40th year in the restaurant industry, has led the Buckhead-based restaurant group since August 2010. The former president of Peasant Restaurants Inc. and ex-owner of now-defunct downtown Atlanta eateries Daily’s and City Grill is a founding member of the nonprofit.

She oversees an organization advocating for more than 16,000 businesses in Georgia providing more than 405,000 jobs with total sales of more than $16.5 billion annually. The restaurant industry is the second largest private employer in the state, behind agribusiness.

“Our industry was one of the first in the nation to recover all of our jobs after the Great Recession,” Bremer said. “We recovered over a million jobs nationwide.

“From 1997 to 2007, African-American ownership grew by 188 percent, Hispanic by 80 percent and Asian[-American] by 60 percent.”

She said restaurants have struggled with some federal mandates.

Regarding President Barack Obama’s push to increase the minimum wage, Bremer said, “Less than 5 percent of all restaurant and bar workers are making minimum wage in the United States. … Tipped restaurant employees are among the highest-paid employees in the establishment, regularly earning between $16 an hour for entry-level servers and $22 an hour for more experienced servers. No one is making $2.13 an hour. Every time menu prices increase servers get a raise as most people tip on a percentage basis.

“I have been to several of these minimum wage protests. Most of the protests were by union organizers and union workers. I have yet to meet a restaurant worker protesting.”

As for the Affordable Care Act, she said, “It has been a very tough challenge over the last few years as deadlines have been extended. I think the restaurants in that 50- to 100-employee range are the most vulnerable because things have been extended with-out clear rules regarding full-time worker hours and many other rules. The smaller restaurants do not have to comply and the larger groups have their plans in place.

“I think the biggest challenges right now is staffing. The population shift going on in the country, I’m a Baby Boomer, the generation behind us is much smaller, so if anybody invests in the restaurant industry should invest in extended care because that’s where we may all be at some point. Regarding staffing, people say to me, ‘What’s the solution?’ We need more people who will join the industry.” The solutions will include more limited service restaurants, more self service restaurants and a much needed guest worker program.

As for illegal immigration, Bremer said, “Our organization was the first one in the state to make a statement about the immigration issue. We do not support illegal immigration. The Georgia Restaurant Association supports comprehensive immigration reform, but only at the federal level, including increased border security, a workable employment verifica-tion system, a worker program and an earned path to permanent residence for certain undocumented immigrants. We support all of those who came to our country legally to better themselves and their families.

“Another issue is rules and regulations. I had someone tell me the restaurant industry is the second most regulated industry behind the mining industry.”

Bremer also said one misconception is the profits smaller restaurants such as a café serving breakfast and lunch make despite $1 million in annual revenue. According to her, after funds are spent on goods, labor, rent and utilities, credit card processing and administration, only about $100,000 is left over for profits and the owner’s wages.

Business association President Brian McGuire said Bremer’s speech was educational.

“I total think that having her here to talk about some of the misconceptions in the restaurant industry was good,” he said. “Beginning in high school I spent the five years employed as a waiter in restaurants. I’m glad she brought up the issues regarding the Affordable Care Act, minimum wage and illegal immigration and the effect they have on restaurants.”

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