Leadership Series: From Dishwasher to National Restaurant Association Chairman, Jeff Davis Proves Commitment Pays Off

Jeff Davis may be the 2017 chairman for the National Restaurant Association and of the United States Beef Corporation (Arby's largest franchisee) today, but he didn't start off that way. He is proof that the restaurant industry is a wonderful place of opportunity, where the spirit of hard work and commitment can take you to unimaginable heights. 

Davis' first foray into foodservice wasn't the life of a high-profile chef or mixologist that foodies fantasize about — he was a dishwasher.

"I started off the same way as many people in our industry — in the kitchen, washing dishes, and working the front counter with my mom," he said.

As a dishwasher, he only made 60 cents an hour, but that did not deter him. He sincerely believes that the industry "is a strong pathway to the middle class," his own family's story being a testament to that. After his father purchased their family's first Arby's, he witnessed firsthand the everyday struggles and lessons of running a business. 

"Pretty tough on us, because we had no money," Davis recalled. "It was a tough life, but I wouldn't have changed it for anything in the world."

As he learned the ropes and began maneuvering around to discover the path he wanted to take in his career, he began to get involved in the local community, joining the Oklahoma Restaurant Association, where he attended meetings and asked questions. Through that involvement, he worked his way up and eventually became the youngest chairman at the age of 35. Fast forward to today, he is now the 98th NRA Chairman and he now owns and operates more than 350 restaurants.

In spite of his success, his focus is to always give back to the community and to forge the way for the next generation of the restaurant industry. Davis is passionate about supporting small business owners and cultivating and inspiring young professionals to make their mark on the future of food. The core of his leadership, which is based on his father's principles on treating people with respect, is to empower his employees and raise them up in their professions. 

"The best part of my job is the people that I work with and have met throughout my career. I've been fortunate enough to be surrounded by the best in this industry — some of the brightest and hardest-working talent around. Over the years, I have witnessed a lot of folks who started out with the U.S. Beef Corporation and have turned these jobs into lifelong careers," Davis said. "...Looking at the company now, and our thousands of employees, it makes me very proud to see how far we’ve come. I’m also proud that we remain a family-run business and I can now watch my children grow and operate the U.S. Beef Corporation."

"Never could I have imagined, and I'm sure my father wouldn't have been able to imagine, so many of our people move up in our organization," he continued. "It's been an absolutely wonderful experience."


Q&A with Jeff Davis, Chairman of NRA (2017) and United States Beef Corporation

Foodable: What does your day-to-day routine look like? What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of your roles?

Jeff Davis: I really couldn’t tell you when my work week starts or when it ends. When you own and operate more than 350 restaurants — with many more on the drawing board — there are really very few moments when I’m not working. And with the additional responsibilities as Chairman of the NRA, my plate stays pretty full with travel to Washington D.C., Atlanta (Headquarters of ARG-Arby’s Restaurant Group), industry events, and my executive team at US Beef.

Foodable: As Chairman of the NRA, you said you would challenge your partners to tell their stories because "it starts with us." Can you elaborate on why it is importance for them to do so?

JD: Promoting, protecting, and defending the industry that creates so many jobs and feeds a nation is a big responsibility. It starts with us to share our stories to enlighten and educate elected officials at the local, state, and federal level. It starts with us to get more engaged in the political process, especially when we see overreaching rules and regulations headed our way. As owners and operators, it starts with us to provide good food, great guest service, and a positive and opportunistic working environment for our employees from the top-down.

Foodable: One of your goals is to empower restaurateurs by educating them in regards to policies. What would you suggest to those who want to be involved but don't know how?

JD: First, I would encourage every restaurateur to join the National Restaurant Association and attend our Public Affairs Conference. This year’s conference will be held in Washington, D.C., on March 28 and 29. I’d also encourage every restaurateur to be involved with their local city council member. Bring them to your restaurant. Take them on a tour of the kitchen. Enjoy a meal with them.

Your local council member or state senator could very well end up in Congress someday. Build that personal relationship. We are the hospitality industry, so let that shine through as you build relationships with your local leaders. These relationships will open doors and allow us to educate the decision-makers about the challenges and successes of running a small business.

Foodable: You also mentioned that you wanted to ramp up NRA's grassroots efforts in discussing emerging issues and regulations. Can you elaborate on that?

JD: The issues that touch our industry can come up at any level — local, state, or federal. Folks need to get involved and be engaged. I am proud that the National Restaurant Association has 20 “Kitchen Cabinets” throughout the United States. These local Kitchen Cabinet programs connect restaurant owners and operators with elected officials and opinion leaders in their own communities. It gives local leaders a chance to learn about what restaurateurs do for their communities. Restaurateurs need to be engaged. One in three Americans got their start working in a restaurant, one in two have worked in a restaurant, and we now employ about one in 10 working Americans.

Foodable: As a restaurant industry veteran, what has fueled your momentum throughout the years and what continues to drive you now?

JD: The best part of this job is the people — the employees I work with every day and the guests who enjoy our restaurants. I am constantly energized by the young restaurateurs who are getting involved in the industry. The enthusiasm and energy they bring to their work and their passion for our industry fuels my excitement to serve as NRA chairman. I see this role as an opportunity to get a whole new generation of industry folks involved and engaged. I've seen firsthand what a positive impact this industry can have on people’s lives and I want others to have the same opportunities.

Foodable: Any last thoughts you would like to share?

JD: Get involved. Being active and engaged with your state restaurant association allows you to interact with so many talented people from across the industry. There is a tremendous value in hearing from fellow restaurateurs. This kind of sharing helps all of our businesses thrive and grow. One more time, it starts with us.