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Online Extra: Dishing on Dining in the First State with Delaware Restaurant Association CEO

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This year marks Carrie Leishman’s 15th anniversary as president and CEO of the Delaware Restaurant Association, which promotes, protects and improves the state’s food service industry, and represents close to 2,000 restaurants in the First State. Leishman loves her job—and she can’t resist a McDonald’s Shamrock Shake.

DT: Would you mind sharing a little background?
CL: I’ve been the president of this organization for the past 15 years. Before that I was with the Restaurant Association of Maryland. I was there 10 years. I sort of cut my teeth in the restaurant association industry. I’m from New York originally. I was a journalism major at Syracuse and came down to Baltimore thinking I’d be in the advertising and P.R. industry. I worked with so many restaurants at the time. I just had a love for food and drinks, so it was sort of a natural progression to go work in the industry. After working for the restaurant industry I realized that I liked being on this side of the table, so to speak, because I’m helping and advocating for an industry that I love. I’ve spent 15 years here and I’ve never been bored.

DT: How many restaurants do you represent?
CL: We represent about 2,000 restaurants in the state. We have 44,000 employees. That’s 10 percent of the state’s workforce. We have an economic impact of about $1.3 billion in the state of Delaware. We are the largest small business employer. And we are the largest component of Delaware’s tourism industry.

DT: How did you get your current job?
CL: It’s a great story, actually. Xavier Teixido from Harry’s Savoy Grill was on the verge of becoming chairman of the National Restaurant Association. He came down to Maryland to talk to us (the Restaurant Association of Maryland) because he heard we were a good organization. He said, “We have this organization in Delaware. And it’s OK, it’s great, but it really isn’t doing anything. So can we become a chapter of the Maryland group?” He wanted a stronger organization before he took over this national position. I met with him. At the time I was eight and a half months pregnant with my youngest and I said, “You know, that’s not really how it works. Every state needs to have its own strong and independent restaurant association.” He went back and I gave birth and six months later I reached out to him and said, “Hey, if you’re still interested in talking to me about Delaware, I’d really like that position.” So that’s how it started. We started where I sat around the table with about five restaurateurs in the state. I said, “Who’s the chairman?” And at the time Steve Torpey of Stanley’s Tavern kind of reluctantly lifted his hand and said, “Well, I guess I am.” And really that’s how formal, or how lack of formality, this organization was run 15 years ago. There were about five board members. Then I had to pass muster with the folks at the beach, which had a different personality. At first they didn’t welcome me. I wasn’t a local. It took years to bring those two sides together—for everybody to realize that in the state of Delaware all restaurants had more in common than what they knew. I’m most proud today of the 25 members that I have on the board that are diverse. They come from all types of restaurants, from fine dining to fast food in all parts of the state. Young and established, new … it really is a dynamic board that we have today.

DT: How did you finally win over the folks at the beach?
CL: I think it was just proving that restaurants from all over the state had more issues in common than they knew about. It was bringing them together as an advocate. So I advocate for their industry’s needs. They’re similar. Restaurants share a set of common challenges and by pulling them together on the board first, that was a good start at pulling everyone together in the state. And today we’re really a stronger and very cohesive group. It’s an active group. And it’s funny, today I see the vibe of the organization actually shifting and trending south. There are so many great new restaurants coming from the beach. They’re younger, they’re socially conscious, they’re active, they’re part of a great community of passionate restaurateurs and businesses. It’s a reflection of our membership right now. There’s a restaurant association in every state and I would put our group of active members and board members against any other state in the country. It’s very special to do business in Delaware. It really is. And we all eat well, too. (laughs)

DT: How often do you dine out?
CL: Almost every day, at least at lunch because I’m having business meetings. You know, 50 percent of us, in this country, dine out at least once a day. I would say I’m definitely part of that 50 percent and there are so many amazing places to choose from. I enjoy it. I enjoy going into my restaurants in Delaware, just like we all do. They are creative entrepreneurs. They care about their communities, their customers. I’m like everybody else, I just happen to have a little bit more of inside knowledge of what it takes to be successful and what it takes to be a part of this great and vibrant restaurant community in the state.

DT: Dining out at least once a day, how do you keep in shape?
CL: I work out every day, except on the weekends. I go to the gym every day and I either swim or I run. I do my best. It’s getting harder.

DT: You have to answer this one…
CL: I know you’re going to ask me what my favorite restaurant is. I’m not going to tell you, because I have a few. And it really depends on my mood. Let me tell you what I ate today, because it was delicious. My office is in Newark and right now I’m really partial to Taverna’s veal meatballs and grilled baby artichokes. If I’m at the beach, there are a number of places I like there. I think Matt Haley’s restaurants at the beach are terrific and, I mean, how can you deny the fried clams? They’re fabulous. And I love Dogfish … I like them all. If you ask me my favorite restaurant, I couldn’t choose. Just like all of us, it depends on the day, our mood, our circumstance. But I know that the ones I eat in, it’s just a great gathering place, whether it’s for social reasons or for business and that’s what it’s all about in the restaurant industry. I really do appreciate great service. I appreciate those restaurateurs that do a great job training their staff. It doesn’t matter if they’re casual concept or fine dining, I see good restaurateurs in any concept do the right thing for their employees and communities.

DT: What would happen if you were seen in a McDonald’s?
CL: No. I love it. Are you crazy? I brought my daughter and her friend last March into a McDonald’s because her friend never had a Shamrock Shake. What the hell is better than that? Everybody needs a Shamrock Shake. And, I’m sorry, the french fries are the best. I’m not going to deny it. And I think McDonald’s is a great company. They know what their customers want and they give it to them. I love it. Great coffee. Great french fries. Great Shamrock Shakes.

DT: So some of your members are fast food chains?
CL: Absolutely. Even on the board. We are very lucky, like I said, to represent all types of restaurants, from fast food to fine dining—quick service, family restaurants, sports bars. The reason that’s so great is because by having representation from all over the restaurant vertical market, we can really support them. We can advocate for them. We’re very diverse and that’s what makes it great.

DT: How does Delaware’s dining scene rate versus the surrounding big-city dining meccas?
CL: I think we have a great dining scene in the state of Delaware. And it’s all over the state, it isn’t just in one pocket. I think there is no doubt the beach is hot right now. I mean who wouldn’t want to relocate a business at the beach? It’s a great way to live, it’s a great way of life. It’s challenging. I think some of our passionate operators down there are doing better than some of these big cities. Look at what’s happening in Wilmington with Bryan Sikora opening up La Fia in Wilmington. There’s a lot of great things happening in Delaware and I’d say there’s going to be more to come.

DT: OK. Since you seem to be one step ahead of me, what’s my next question?
CL: You want to know what’s on the horizon for the association. What’s the agenda and what are you passionate about moving forward? And I’m going to tell you right now. We’re most excited about ProStart. This is what you’re going to hear a lot more of this year. ProStart is probably our biggest initiative that we’ll be working on in the next year or two. ProStart is the National Restaurant Association’s culinary and management curriculum that we currently have in 12 high schools in Delaware. We’ve got 1,600 students. So what I’m really jazzed about is sort of educating the next generation of hospitality leaders through ProStart. It’s really exciting. This is our second year. We will host a culinary and management competition for these high schools. And it’s amazing. This isn’t what you would think of as home economics. These kids are spinning sugar, de-boning fish and building restaurants from the ground up. They’re talking about sustainability, social responsibility, menu design, layout of a restaurant. It really is exciting whether they go into the restaurant industry or not when they graduate, they’re really learning to be amazing leaders for the next generation and in the community.

DT: Your website says the industry is the fourth-largest employer in Delaware.
CL: I’m excited about what we do for the state economically. Restaurants are the largest small-business employer in the state. I get excited when a new restaurant comes to town. You know we hear a lot from our political leaders when a business opens up in manufacturing and hires 50 people. I’ve got restaurants doing that every day. And I’m really proud of that. I’m proud that restaurants are the cornerstone of every community in the state. In Sussex County alone, it’s the largest employer, period. What it does for the state economically, what we do locally for every community, and what we do for the opportunity for someone to have a great career—I think should be shouted from the highest mountain. 

DT: It’s amazing how many people I know who are either working in or have worked in the industry.
CL: I don’t know of an industry that is more inclusive, that doesn’t really care if you’re black, white, Latino, gay, straight, older, younger. If you work hard, you can get on the ladder and you can move up. Or at least what you’re learning, being that it’s your first job, or my teenager busing at Bethany Blues last summer, is they learn how to get up, be part of a team, work hard and then from there you can make a decision: Are you in this for a year or a career? What I’m proud of from this industry is that we have those choices and we have those opportunities for everybody. In the restaurant industry, you see this as a breeding ground for entrepreneurial spirit among new immigrant groups, women. It’s an opportunity to start on a path of owning your own business. It really is creating an American Dream. It’s a very hard business and that’s why we have great schools, even within our own state, like the University of Delaware’s restaurant program. Delaware State has a great program. DelTech has a great culinary program. You see so many people going into those programs because it truly is a dream that many people want to be part of.

DT: I was at an event recently where the William Penn High School program served lunch. They were very impressive.
CL: Those students at William Penn were our statewide winners this past year in the management competition. What was so exciting was that I was able to follow those kids to the national competition in Baltimore this past year. Also with Cape Henlopen High School, who won the culinary competition, and I can’t begin to tell you how proud I was of those kids. This is like the Olympics for competitions. They’re producing this beautiful food. They’re presenting their beautiful restaurant topics to national leaders in the hospitality industry. And when they were done, I cried. I felt like the den mother. (Read more about this in the May issue of Delaware Today.)

DT: Sounds like a great thing.
CL: We were able to give scholarships to these winners. And I can’t begin to tell you how important that was for their families. All of our ProStart schools have kids that are realizing opportunities through our mentors and through our program and through experience they would have never seen if it wasn’t for programs like that. Those William Penn kids rock. The Delaware Restaurant Association helped to sponsor the gubernatorial ball when Gov. Markell won re-election. We had all of our restaurants doing food and drinks for the governor’s ball and our William Penn kids came out as part of that and they were the hit of the whole ball.

DT: What are the most remarkable changes you’ve seen in the industry during the past 15 years?
CL: Our times are changing so much. Technology is changing. How we dine out, what we expect. The economy dictates a lot about how restaurants adapt and serve their customers. I have done this for so long and what I’m so impressed with these people is a restaurant’s ability to adapt and change to the needs and desires of their customers. I think that is really amazing and exciting. It’s harder today because nobody realizes that although people are passionate entrepreneurs, the average profit margin of a restaurant is about five cents on the dollar. So it becomes more challenging. That’s where our work as an organization and as an advocate becomes much more important to the industry.

DT: Do you like to cook?
CL: I do. I love to cook for my family, for friends. I have all the same passion that a restaurateur does except that I tend to do it on a smaller scale. I love to cook. Love to drink wine. I love to go out. I love to experience it all.

DT: Are you a good cook?
CL: I am, I think. You’d have to ask my family and my friends. I think they’d say I am.

DT: The Cornerstone Awards are a cool thing that you do each year.
CL: You know this industry does so much for everyone else. They’re always doing someone’s fundraiser. They’re always giving to a campaign or somebody’s softball team. This is the one night of the year that the restaurant industry can come out, they can relax and celebrate themselves. It’s a very special event because we honor a restaurateur of the year. And then we do a very special lifetime achievement award—we call it our Cornerstone Award. It becomes very emotional. And every year I’ve done this, tears come out in full force. It’s very gratifying for winners to be honored from people who work equally as hard as they do. It’s probably one of the best events of the year for many people because it’s real, it’s emotional, because it’s so hard to be in this business and here’s a night where everybody says, “You’re right. It’s hard and we’re going to recognize you for what you do.” It’s very special.

DT: That’s great. Because most of them don’t have time to go to any events. 
CL: They don’t. Do you know how challenging it is? We don’t have networking events and regular meetings because restaurateurs don’t have time. They are an audience that’s challenged with time and hard work, so everything we do has to be really fun and has to be relevant and has to give them enjoyment. The other thing we do is great fun is we host a bocce tournament at Dogfish Head where restaurants dress up, put together teams and play for charity. We play with legislators. Last year the governor came. Everything we do just has a little bit of a unique spin to it. Of course, each of our events has to have great food and drink. We’re not your average organization.

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