It all started at Ralph & Kacoo’s with a temptingly tasty seafood platter served at the end of young Stan Harris’ first shift as a dishwasher.
“Every day since has been an adventure,” says Harris, now president and CEO of the Louisiana Restaurant Association. “I have zero regrets serving all these years in the restaurant business.”
Harris spent 27 years with TJM Restaurant Management, which was the largest franchisee of Ruth’s Chris Steak House, including stints as president and CEO of the firm. He’s also a past president of the Council of State Restaurant Associations and director on the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau board.
Last month, he began serving as the chair of the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation Board of Trustees, the philanthropic foundation of the National Restaurant Association. Founded in 1919, the National Restaurant Association is the leading business association for the restaurant industry, which is comprised of 1 million restaurant and foodservice outlets and boasts a workforce of 15.3 million employees.
Also this year, Melvin Rodrigue, president and CEO of Galatoire’s Restaurants, is serving as chair of the National Restaurant Association board of directors.
“I’m proud that Louisiana is so well represented,” says Harris. “Our state has 9,500 restaurants, with a restaurant in every parish. We are 1.4% of the nation’s population but we have a huge impact in this industry.”
During his time with Ruth’s Chris, Harris was in charge of 2,300 employees. He says in order to succeed, “You need to put together a team full of cheerful people who can work together, can handle the occasional pressure and who come back to do it again tomorrow.”
He says one of the best things the restaurant industry can offer employees is upward mobility. If someone comes to him saying they’re interested in starting a career in food service he likes to ask them questions geared toward their personality like, “Do you like to smile? Do you have a servant heart? Can you enjoy working when others play? Do you like to count?”
“We are always counting things in this industry — from napkins and cups to steaks and tips,” he says. “To be successful, the formula is relatively simple: you need the right people, a quality product and great execution.”
One of the educational programs in his industry for which Harris expresses pride is ProStart, a two-year program for high school students. From culinary techniques to management skills, the curriculum provides real-world educational opportunities and builds practical skills and a strong foundation.
“It’s a robust program in Louisiana: it’s at 60 high schools across the state,” says Harris. “It can truly jump start their careers in this industry.”
Yvette Green, interim director of UNO’s Lester E. Kabacoff School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Administration has high praise for Harris.
“Stan has been a restaurant operator, so he understands the challenges that owners and operators face,” she says. “He understands the restaurant business, and he is an effective advocate for our restaurants at the local, state and national levels. As an educator, I appreciate that Stan understands workforce development and education are important factors to the success of our restaurant industry.”
Harris says he loves that in his job no day is the same and that he is able, on a regular basis, to savor so many culinary delights.
“The other day I had boudin cakes topped with a poached egg and hollandaise over an English muffin at the Roosevelt,” he says. “It was for a national meeting. In New Orleans we live to eat, and I love sharing that with others.”
Rodrigue says he has had the privilege of sharing many great meals across the country with Harris.
“The most memorable, though, was at a seafood shack in Florida where we shared stone crabs at a picnic table,” he says. “We share an affinity for the delicacy, and he managed to find this location after a round of golf. They were giant and spectacular!”
One of the things that Harris hopes people realize is the breadth and scope of his industry’s philanthropic side.
“We are at every charitable event,” he says. “We donate food or offer “Dinner for Two” for auctions at churches, schools and other non-profit fundraising events. Our industry is full of generous people giving back.”
But the thing Harris loves most is the fact that restaurants are a part of their customers’ extended family.
“We celebrate their birthdays and holidays with them,” he says. “And here in Louisiana, we simply celebrate eating another meal.”