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The restaurant industry’s new CEO brings his practical guidance to the table

Photo: Frank Aymami, III

The restaurant industry in Louisiana, besides being a cornerstone of the state’s unique culinary culture, represents a cornerstone of the state’s economy. Restaurants employ 9 percent of Louisiana’s workforce and will rake in an estimated $6.2 billion in sales this year. The trade organization helping to unite, protect and advance this vital industry, the Louisiana Restaurant Association, recently welcomed a new president and CEO by the name of Stan Harris.

A veteran of the restaurant world, Harris held management positions in a Baton Rouge restaurant group led by famed restaurateur T.J. Moran, who owned Ruth’s Chris and other properties. When Ruth’s Chris was sold in 2006, Harris spent a year helping the new owners make the transition. A private equity firm recruited him to head up a golf accessories company and, after the economy softened, Harris started an advisory consulting group in Nashville, Tenn., that focused on small- and family-owned businesses. When the LRA asked him to consider taking the position he has now, Harris couldn’t resist the allure of the restaurant industry.

“If you’re going to be representing restaurants, where better to do it than in Louisiana?” he says. “And I was going to be following in the footsteps of Jim Funk, who was retiring after 30 years and had become somewhat legendary. I was flattered to have the opportunity. I started my position the first of this year, and so far it’s going fine, but there’s a lot to learn. It’s like taking a cool sip of water from a fire hose.”

One purpose of the LRA is to represent the interests of the state’s restaurants in the Legislature, similar what its national affiliate, the National Restaurant Association, does on Capitol Hill. The LRA supports proper food safety, alcohol laws and public health protocols, but it also wants to be sure government doesn’t unnecessarily intrude on the operations of its members. The LRA also promotes culinary careers, hosts an important annual trade show and operates a workers’ compensation insurance program specifically for restaurants.

The LRA serves its members in other ways, too. Since restaurant owners and managers work long hours and find it difficult to keep up with all the changes in the industry, the LRA distributes regular reports. Members can take advantage of LRA’s HR resources, legal counsel, credit card processing and payroll partnerships, and other incentives.

As the new president, Harris looks to broaden the LRA’s menu of benefits, such as providing guidance with social networking and other modern marketing tools. “I’m always trying to help members with things they might not have thought of,” he says. “With my background as an operator, I have ideas about how restaurants can become more profitable, and I pass along my advice.”

Harris also wants to make the LRA more data driven. The organization’s current database platform is outdated, but a new platform will be up and running in July and will integrate disparate membership information so it can be put to practical use. “We’ll know, for example, if you’re due for food safety training and can send out reminders. Training is critical for us to be a top-notch industry, and with the new system, our members won’t go out of compliance,” Harris says.

Based in Metairie, the LRA divides itself into nine statewide chapters, and the New Orleans chapter, not surprisingly, has the highest percentage of members. Although Harris and his staff of about 60 are full-time employees, volunteers from the industry statewide serve on the board and committees. Time is donated, and these volunteers love the world of restaurants and feel compelled to give back to their industry.

As for Harris, his exposure to careers in hospitality goes back to when he was a young child. His grandmother was the executive housekeeper of the Pontchartrain Hotel on St. Charles Avenue (now a senior development). She lived on site, so Harris in his youth visited often and got to know all the characters of this classic hotel.

“It was the greatest place,” he says. “The chef taught me how to sauté a fish and to make an omelet properly. The general manager never met a stranger. They took care of their customers and always had repeat guests. That’s where I caught the bug.”

When Harris was a student at Louisiana State University, he worked as a bartender at the Fleur de Lis Lounge, a down-home pizza joint and Baton Rouge institution that dates to the 1940s. After graduation, Harris accepted his first position with T.J. Moran in a junior management role.

“On my first day, he handed me a knife and said if I can learn how to butcher, I can do the job. I made salads, filled waters and reset tables,” Harris says. “If I didn’t understand the foundational elements of working in a restaurant, I could never lead people and I wouldn’t have credibility with them.”

While the foundation of the restaurant industry — serving guests — never changes, the industry is always facing new challenges. Today, the recession, high gas prices and the after-effects of the BP oil spill have impacted Louisiana restaurants. It’s up to people like Stan Harris and organizations like the LRA to guide the state’s treasured restaurants to prosperity.