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Profile: Delivering Sterling Service to Food Services Industry in NJ

Association’s president warns that raising minimum wage to $15 would result in layoffs, recommends lower ‘training’ wage for younger workers

Marilou Halvorsen
Marilou Halvorsen

Who she is: Marilou Halvorsen, president of New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association.

Hometown: Loch Arbour.

Family: Husband, and two children who attend University of Delaware.

What the association does: NJRHA offers discounts, training, and networking opportunities to owners and managers of the state’s 27,000 food-service companies. Members include restaurants, as well as universities and hospitals that don’t deliver food service as their primary mission.

Why it’s important: With 315,000 employees and a $15 billion annual economic impact, NJRHA’s members make up the state’s largest private-sector employer base. In addition to membership dues, a grant from the New Jersey state department’s Division of Travel and Tourism provides part of its funding.

Halvorsen’s qualifications: After three “miserable months” living in Los Angeles after graduating from college, Halvorsen landed a job at Radio City Music Hall as executive assistant to the vice president of special events. After almost five years, she left to work for two former Radio City employees who had formed their own event-production company. Their big clients? The Preakness Stakes and the Welcome America! Independence Day festivities in Philadelphia.

From there, Halvorsen advocated for the amusement park industry as director of the New Jersey Amusement Association and was then recruited by the Jenkinson’s Boardwalk and Casino Pier family of dining and entertainment venues. She stayed as communications and crisis-management director for 15 years.

Her first day on the job at the NJRHA: October, 29, 2012. The day Hurricane Sandy struck New Jersey.

“The staff’s not in,” she recalled. “I’m trying to figure out how to turn on the lights. The phone’s ringing off the hook. The first call I took was from (Iron Chef) David Burke (of the now-shuttered Fromagerie in Rumson). He said, ‘This is David Burke. I need you to find me a generator. I have all this food, and I need to feed the first responders.’ And that was it. We were off.”

But it wasn’t just the hard-hit restaurant industry Halverson was worried about in the days, weeks, and months following the storm. When the storm decimated Point Pleasant Beach, Seaside Heights and other waterfront towns, she tried to help her successor at Jenkinson’s — where she loved the people like family — as much as possible.

To make matters more difficult, the 70-year-old NJRHA had been without a leader for the past six months, since the former executive director, her friend Deborah Dowdell, had died from cancer.

“In hindsight (the storm) was a great way to get fully immersed into the association. Without visiting all the members that were affected and talking to all the suppliers that wanted to help I wouldn’t have gotten to know everyone like I did.”

While Halvorsen has spent much of her time on recovery and support, she hasn’t allowed other industry business to languish.

How she has restructured the association: She added the word “hospitality” to reflect her expanded goal to represent hotels and defined a core mission to “support, educate, and advocate.” She also drew up a four-year strategic plan.

Why some legislative positions make her unpopular: Halvorsen represents business owners, not employees. She’s lobbying against populist initiatives like paid sick leave for hourly workers and an increase in the minimum wage. Her group also counsels caution in approaching liquor-license reform and opposed a movement to allow craft breweries and distilleries to sell their own products for consumption on-site.

How she explains her positions: “We never advocate for people coming in sick,” she said. “But sometimes you end up having to pay two people to do the same job.”

“We’re looking to educate people on the ramifications,” she said. “When you add all of these recent initiatives together on small labor-intensive businesses in a very short time, it’s all very damaging.”

On the move to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour: She said most restaurant employees make at least a $10 an hour, with front-of-the-house servers making closer to $16 or $17 after tips. If the starting wage for everyone, including employees at the groceries that supply the restaurants, rises to $15 an hour, she warned that restaurateurs will have to replace higher-paid workers with laptops and computer terminals. She points to Labor Department statistics that show one-third of the state’s food-service industry is under 18 years old and recommends a graduated pay scale that raises the adult minimum wage while keep a lower minor or training wage.

“The minimum wage was meant to set a standard for those just starting out so there would be some sort of bar,” she said. “It was supposed to be for kids. Ours is a very labor-intensive industry so our profit per employee is lower than at a bank or a technology company.”

She also said that the average New Jersey restaurant owner draws less than a 5 percent profit from his or her business. And by the time a restaurant owner adds in employee-related costs like payroll taxes, unemployment, and temporary disability insurance, that $15 per hour rises to $18 or $19.

“Something on a cosmic level can be great,” she said, “but sometimes you need to be really careful how it plays out.”

How she hopes to use training to better society: Sixteen public schools in Newark and Sussex, Bergen, Passaic, Mercer, and Atlantic counties currently use a curriculum called ProStart, developed by the National Restaurant Educational Foundation to teach culinary techniques and management skills. Calling it “the best culinary program out there,” Halvorsen supports giving more money to schools to build the requisite training kitchens. Her New Jersey Restaurant Educational Foundation runs competitions that raise money for culinary scholarships.

The foundation also runs a job-placement service in conjunction with the department of labor, though she’d like to see placement services extended to women’s shelters and to developmental-disability programs.

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