The Colonel Behind the Cuisine

Acuity with Jot Condie

Back Q&A May 31, 2012 By Douglas Curley

Jot Condie, 46, the California Restaurant Association in 1998 as its chief lobbyist. In 2004 he was promoted to president and CEO. 

“Like many young teenagers, my first real job was in the restaurant industry. I was a dishwasher for Mr. Steak in Concord. Since teenagers tend not to listen to their parents, restaurant owners have to teach us first-time employees some basic facts of life, such as showing up on time, clean and with your hair combed.”

“There are 10,000 fewer California restaurants today than there were 10 years ago. 2008 through 2010 were very difficult years for the industry; we saw a thinning of the herd. Those operations that were just holding on before the recession could no longer keep their doors open. Today, especially in tourist regions, we are seeing signs of recovery. It all depends where you operate; places like L.A., San Diego and San Francisco are seeing the return of the travel dollar. Hotel occupancy rates are up, and that usually means more dollars for the restaurant industry.”

“However, if you’re in the valley from Fresno to Redding, business is flat at best. Sacramento is a destination because of the State Capitol, but it’s not really much of an overall tourist destination. Most people don’t plan a vacation around a visit to the State Capitol. Places like Sacramento and Redding are now seeing some glimmer of hope and reason for optimism, and with this slight up-tick in confidence you are seeing some backfill activity.”

“Gas prices for us are a double whammy. We get hit from both sides. We get it in terms of the passed-along cost increases in the commodities that have to be transported. And just as importantly, we get it in reduced traffic through the front door. There is a direct correlation in the price of gas and the number of customers in the restaurant. People make decisions out of their pocketbook every day. The first pocketbook decision is, ‘If gas is $5 a gallon, we’re not driving anywhere we don’t absolutely have to.’”

“Restaurant owners are a lot like politicians in many respects. They have constituents, which are their customers. So they always have to be aware of and respond to the needs and wants of this constituency if they want to stay in business. Being clean, green and energy efficient is very important to the California customer base. Ideally, by taking proper measures, a restaurant owner can both reduce operation costs and receive good publicity by embracing the green movement.”

“The minimum wage legislation currently being contemplated is also a major concern of our members. The association is one of the main opponents to this legislation because it is tied almost exclusively to the annual Consumer Price Index. Instead of taking into consideration any other indexes, facts, figures or conditions, the CPI would simply kick in increases every year forever. Putting on autopilot something like a minimum wage increase is ridiculous.”

“Homeland Security is alive and well in California. Our industry has been the target of a wave of what the Wall Street Journal calls ‘silent raids.’ Officers in flak jackets do not conduct these raids with guns, barreling into a locality asking for papers and arresting people. Instead, it’s usually two people: a prosecutor and an auditor. They ask for employee documentation, do an audit and in many cases inform the owner that an employee has submitted false papers. And just like that, they’re gone. Usually, the owner never sees or hears from them again. It’s heartbreaking.”

“This is a source of great frustration for our industry. Nationally, you are seeing some pretty draconian state laws being implemented that fortunately I don’t believe you’ll ever see in California because of the diverse ethnic makeup of our state. Thank goodness we’re not Arizona. As an industry, we continue to work with Congress in trying to craft something that is good for our members and the demographics of our members. As an industry, we are very empathetic of the worker, who is working hard, trying to do right for his family, pursuing the American dream. As a country, we have to find a way to deal with this in a humane way. This has yet to be accomplished in Washington.”

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