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Cashion, MHRA have wide range of items, issues on agenda

Even though hotel and restaurant owners in South Mississippi and on the Gulf Coast were hit hard by Hurricane Katrina last August, Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association (MHRA) members moved quickly to help others get back on their feet, housing and feeding thousands of evacuees and disaster relief volunteers. The impassioned response represented only one example of benevolent actions taken by MHRA members during a time of crisis.

The Mississippi Business Journal chatted with Mike Cashion, who has helmed the statewide association since it was known as the Mississippi Restaurant Association, about the spirited recovery efforts, industry trends and other top priorities affecting MHRA members.

Mississippi Business Journal: How has the make up of the membership changed over the years?

Mike Cashion: The MHRA has enjoyed tremendous growth. In fact, in the past five years, we’ve almost doubled in size. The association is comprised of over 2,600 member locations representing restaurants, casinos, lodging properties and associate members.

Our growth has primarily been a result of three focused strategies. First of all, we’ve improved the products and services we offer our membership. When a member participates in the services we offer, it’s not uncommon for them to save three or four times their annual membership contribution. We’ve also expanded our education programs. We offer training in all aspects of the restaurant business, including customer service, selective hiring and cost controlling. Finally, we’ve become more active in the political arena. We have re-designed our Political Action Committee (PAC), bolstered our PAC funds and become more aggressive with our annual legislative agenda.

MBJ: What issues are of most concern to association members?

MC: Because we have a very successful Workers’ Compensation Trust, we’re very involved with legislation affecting workers’ comp laws. We’re also interested in all legislation affecting the regulatory agencies we deal with, such as the Health Department and the ABC Division of the Tax Commission. Of course, we’re also concerned about the growing number of frivolous lawsuits stemming from obesity claims.

From the operations perspective, we’re constantly looking for new ways to help our members become more profitable. Many people think that restaurants make a lot of money. The truth is the average restaurant makes less than 4% profit on only $600,000 per year. That works out to a $24,000 profit for working 80 hours per week, 52 weeks of the year! Most restaurateurs aren’t in it for the money. They operate restaurants because it is what they truly love. With the cost of energy, food, labor and insurance rising at alarming rates, it’s affecting both the top line sales and the bottom line profitability. Therefore, our mission is to look for ways we can help these small independent business owners bring more money to the bottom line.

MBJ: Tell us about industry trends in Mississippi.

MC: There are a couple of emerging trends. Because of the tremendous cost of land acquisition and build outs, we are seeing fewer independents opening larger, upscale restaurants. A lot of the independent development is on a smaller scale. The other trend we’re seeing is the tremendous diversification of our industry. Ethnic restaurants are opening at a fast rate. Our employee base is also becoming more diversified. The MHRA has recognized this and have incorporated diversity training as part of our strategic plan.

MBJ: What effect has Hurricane Katrina had on MHRA members, and how is recovery progressing?

MC: In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, we recognized the fact that over 50 of our member restaurants were totally destroyed. Another 100 or so were damaged to various degrees. We adjusted our operating budget in anticipation that the MHRA revenues would be down dramatically. Interestingly, we are in the midst of one of the best years ever. We’re closing in on a record year for new members and many of the businesses that were damaged are back up and running. For the first four to six months after Katrina, those restaurants capable of operating were doing incredible business. The resiliency and spirit of our membership was amazing. Business is starting to level off a bit but is still strong on the coast and other affected areas.

MBJ: Tell us some of the benefits of membership, especially on the continuing education front.

MC: It’s vital that we provide our members with what they need. While that sounds simple, it is sometimes complicated. Benefits of membership are like a three-legged step stool. All are equally important and the stool can’t function with one of them missing. Our membership benefits include a fantastic credit card processing program, workers’ comp insurance and an online dining guide that covers the state to name just a few. We’re the voice of the hospitality industry at the state capitol. Our PAC supports legislators that share the same philosophies as our members. We track voting records and support those that support us. The third leg of the stool is our education and training. We sponsor the ServSafe Food Safety program. The Mississippi Department of Health requires food safety training. Each year, we train thousands of food service employees. But in addition to food safety training, we also survey our membership on an annual basis to determine what their training needs are. We then incorporate their feedback into a training calendar for the upcoming year. We’ll be hosting a series of seminars on financial controls next year.

Next year’s focus is going to be on cost controls. The energy crisis has affected both customer sales and profit margins. Many operators need help surviving in this new age economy. We’ll provide experts to help our members bring more money to the bottom line.

We are also venturing into the “webinar” environment. Over the next four months, we’ll host a series of free webinars. Topics will include local store marketing, family marketing, marketing through public relations and hiring and retaining superstar employees. These are offered as a free benefit of membership.

MBJ: Comment on the intent and goals of Vision 2009.

MC: The MHRA operates on a three-year strategic vision cycle. Vision 2009 is the term coined for our next three-year cycle, starting in January. Phil Hardwick did a great job facilitating our strategic planning session this summer. We took a long hard look at what we were doing right and where we could improve. As a result, we identified six primary goals. They include diversity training, improving the structure and function of our chapters, improving membership programs, getting more chains involved in the MHRA, upgrading our Web site and implementing a statewide public relations campaign. It’s a very ambitious set of goals, but I’m blessed to have an aggressive and involved board of directors.

MBJ: Tell us about the various events the association does to give back to communities around the state.

MC: The restaurant industry has long been perceived as one of the most philanthropic industries in the country. Every day, restaurants contribute product or gift certificates to countless charities, school groups and civic clubs. Conservative estimates are that restaurants donate $7 million to $10 million per year to communities throughout the state. Some of our chapters sponsor golf tournaments, others do “tastes” and others do cooking demonstrations, all with the purpose of supporting civic projects and local charities. The MHRA provided over $30,000 alone to restaurant employees affected by Hurricane Katrina. There is no way to estimate just how much food was prepared and donated to Red Cross shelters throughout the state.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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