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Remarks at National Restaurant Association Public Affairs Conference

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Friday, April 16, 2010

CONTACT OFFICE OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS

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Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke
Remarks at National Restaurant Association Public Affairs Conference
Washington, D.C.

Good morning.

I’d like to thank Dawn Sweeney for having me here today and to commend her for leading the American restaurant industry through one of the most challenging periods in its history. Dawn has been working closely with the Commerce Department on a variety of issues and we greatly value her insights. The NRA is lucky to have her leading the ship.

I also want to thank Sally for her very kind introduction. She is doing a terrific job as the NRA’s Vice Chairman. And this is on top of her incredible success as the President and CEO of Buffalo Wild Wings, Inc.

One of my staffers told me that Sally was named the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year for the Midwest Region back in 2001. And in 2002 she was named the North Dakota Innovator of the year.

To me, awards like those are just like the Golden Globes or the Oscars.

Because if you’re an entrepreneur or an innovator—it means you’ve created something new and you’ve likely created jobs for other Americans.

Whether you’ve re-organized a small chain of restaurants and turned them into a billion-dollar empire, or if you’ve opened a handful of local eateries, you’ve created jobs where none existed before.

And if you’re able to do that, then to me, you’re a Hollywood star.

Now, I’m biased towards entrepreneurs. All Commerce secretaries are.

But I’m particularly fond of restaurateurs. My parents ran a restaurant in Pike’s Place Market in Seattle. It wasn’t a nationwide chain, but my parents owned it and made their living there. My siblings and I literally were born into the restaurant world.

So I have a deep and very personal appreciation of restaurant owners.

And I know that when the American economy catches a cold, the restaurant industry catches the flu.

When times are tough for restaurants, there are significant repercussions for the overall American economy.

Nearly nine percent of the U.S. workforce is employed by the restaurant industry. And nearly 13 million people rely on your industry for employment.

The different kinds of jobs the restaurant industry supports are almost too numerous to count.

And you continue to be the source of critical, bread and butter jobs where workers can gain basic job skills that are transportable, and which often come with benefits.

Now I understand how difficult the past couple of years have been on the U.S. economy.

But I want to assure you that putting people back to work and getting this economy moving is the number one priority of the Obama administration.

That’s what this past year has been all about. It’s what this coming year will be all about as well. And I'm confident that your industry is going to reap the rewards of these efforts as consumers gain more confidence and start spending again.

I know that people are frustrated that the economy is not turning around more quickly.

But it’s important to be mindful of where we have come from.

Early last year, when President Obama took office:

  • The economy was losing on average, 700,000 jobs a month.
  • And we were watching a cascade of bank failures unlike anything we’d seen since the 1930s.

We were on the precipice of a second Great Depression.

But thanks to the difficult and sometimes unpopular steps the administration took to stabilize financial and housing markets and stimulate our economy, we have returned from the brink.

An economy that was shrinking by six percent a year ago is growing by nearly six percent today.

Still, we have a long way to go.

While we are working to improve traditional drivers of our economy like domestic consumer spending, it’s also critical that growth come from new sources.

Looking overseas for new customers for American restaurants has strong potential as an avenue for economic expansion.

The good news is that foreign customers who are visiting America are the best customers for our economy—they are spending more on going out to eat, and they are staying longer than they have in recent years.

Across the entire travel and tourism industry we are seeing glimmers of economic improvement.

In the fourth quarter last year, for instance, there were monthly increases for 15 of the top 20 countries that send visitors to our shores.

This positions us well in the U.S. for meeting our forecasted three percent recovery for the travel and tourism industry in 2010.

But despite these positive trends, this is no time to be passive and rest on our laurels.

At the Commerce Department, we are already working hard to get more foreign visitors parked at the booths and tables of American eateries.

On March 4, I was privileged to be with the president when he signed the Travel Promotion Act of 2009, which, as you know, had broad support from the industry and Congress.

The Act creates a public-private partnership between the U.S. government and the nation’s travel and tourism industry that will help encourage more international visitors to come to the United States.

The Commerce Department is taking the lead in getting it all started.

After signing this bill into law, the president’s last comment to me as he was shaking my hand and about to leave the Oval Office, was “Gary Locke. . . make sure you do it right!”

That is exactly what we intend to do.

We are already working on opening the field for applicants who want to serve in an official capacity and be a part of this partnership.

The law requires an 11-member board be established within six months of the law coming into effect. And we are intent on meeting that deadline well ahead of schedule, and doing so in a transparent and balanced manner.

We are already engaged with our sister agencies to set up a system to collect fees from foreign tourists and business people entering our country that will fund this partnership.

And once we have selected the board members that will guide this partnership, or independent corporation, they can start the critical task of promoting American travel and tourism overseas.

I am delighted that a member of the restaurant industry is assured a seat on this board.

As you know, the United States is a great product to sell. And this new public-private partnership will be able to draw on expertise from the existing structures that the Commerce Department already has in place.

The Obama administration is also redoubling our efforts to make existing programs work better for industries like yours.

The Commerce Department already works closely with restaurants through the management of a Travel and Tourism Advisory Board. This group, which I chair, includes 29 industry members selected to represent sectors that are involved in the travel and tourism industry.

Just this Monday, I was pleased to attend the Tourism Board’s inaugural meeting. As some of know, this board includes three advisors from the restaurant industry:

  • Joseph Andres, from ThinkFood Group;
  • Maryann Ferenc, from Mise en Place; and
  • Hubert Joly, from Carlson Companies.

Having strong restaurant representation on the board gives the industry every opportunity to make sure issues that are important to you get fully considered.

More broadly, the administration is seeking to ensure that restaurants can get the credit that they need to grow.

When credit is easily accessible, diners’ opinions and restaurant reviews—not lending institutions and banks—will be the only obstacles to great restaurants that want to expand.

To make access to credit easier, the president has:

  • Called for $30 billion in unused TARP funds to be redirected to community and smaller banks so these institutions can boost lending to small businesses.
  • He included, as part of last year’s Recovery Act, a key provision enabling the Small Business Administration (SBA) to increase loan guarantees from 75 to 90 percent on their biggest loan program and also to waive a variety of borrower fees.
  • Since the signing of the Recovery Act, SBA loan volume is up 60 percent.
  • And the president has called on Congress to increase the maximum size of loans that the Small Business Association can guarantee.

The president is also taking much broader steps to increase America’s exposure to foreign business. As I touched on earlier, this includes leveraging the Travel and Tourism Act to ramp up our efforts to bring new foreign tourists here to the United Sates.

And it also includes the president’s National Export Initiative, or “NEI”, which he announced earlier this year.

To do this, the president has laid out a three-part approach that includes:

  • Making more credit available for our exporters so they can enter new markets;
  • Ensuring that the U.S. government becomes more active in promoting U.S. companies abroad;
  • And bringing a sharper focus to knocking down the barriers that prevent U.S. companies from getting free and open access to foreign markets.

By encouraging economic growth overseas, we are creating new markets for American products.

The NEI says something about how President Obama wants to engage with the world.

He is seeking to expand opportunity for our companies and for companies all around the world. He wants to expand and deepen the relationships between our schools, our businesses and our people.

By exporting more U.S.-made goods and services to more countries, many of which have never actively engaged us in trade, we will also be showcasing America.

When more of the world engages us in trade, they will want to come see for themselves what makes us who we are.

And that will be a boon for restaurants. In 2008, 83 percent of overseas visitors dined out in restaurants. And once more visitors come they’ll want to keep coming back.

And repeat customers are the best kind of customers to have.

Tourism, of course, is the main driver of foreign visitors coming to America. But we also have increasing numbers of foreign business travelers who want to come here to do business with you and to sample some of the great food American restaurants have to offer.

And the Commerce Department is currently working with the Departments of State and Homeland Security to ensure that our business visa system is working as effectively and efficiently as possible.

All of these efforts I have highlighted today are a start. These are some of the steps the administration and the Commerce Department are taking to help all of you do more business.

The restaurant industry is a barometer for the American economy, so the better off all of you are, the better off America is.

From his first day in office, getting our economy moving again has been the president’s highest priority. And it is my highest priority.

So thank you for coming to Washington this week. Thank you for meeting with members of Congress and members of this administration.

And I look forward to working with all of you for years to come.

Thank you.