Q&A With the GRA’s New President & CEO Stephanie Fischer

Posted By: Christy Simo GRA News, Restaurant Industry News,

Q&A With the GRA’s New President & CEO Stephanie Fischer

Earlier this week, Restaurant Informer sat down with the Georgia Restaurant Association’s new President & CEO Stephanie Fischer to learn more about her and what she thinks about Georgia’s restaurants, its most pressing issues and what’s ahead for the industry.

Stephanie Fischer has spent more than 25 years in the hospitality industry and has done a little bit of everything along the way, from training franchisees to opening new locations.

She grew up in Hawaii and got her start in the hospitality industry working at a local KFC in high school. While attending the University of Hawaii, she worked for the Hyatt Regency Waikiki, then moved to Atlanta after graduation. There she met her mentor, Regynald Washington, who at the time was with airport concessionaire Concessions International.

She later spent 13 years with the Walt Disney World Company in Orlando then led Dunkin’ Brands’ training center before returning to Atlanta to join Hojeij Branded Foods, which was acquired by Paradies Lagardère in 2018. Before being named President and CEO for the GRA, she served as Vice President of Corporate Operations of Paradies Lagardère Travel Retail Dining Division, where she led strategic planning and support of dining operations with a focus on new store openings, food safety, back-office systems and the guest experience for more than 80 brands across 170 locations in 43 airports.

Fischer joined the GRA Board in 2017 and was elected to the executive committee two years later before serving as Board Chair in 2022. During her time on the board, she dealt with the many challenges facing Georgia’s restaurant industry and visited both the State Capitol and Washington, D.C. to advocate for issues important to restaurants, such as preserving the FICA tax tip credit, the Essential Workers for Economic Advancement Act and the Credit Card Competition Act.

Following is an edited version of the conversation, which took place in December 2023, for space and clarity.

Did you know when you first started working at KFC in high school that this was an industry you wanted to be a part of?
You know, I think it was more so when I graduated from college. I’ve always loved the industry. When I moved to Atlanta and I started working with Regynald, I was like, you know what? This is where I want to be.

During your career you’ve done a little bit of everything in the hospitality industry. How do you think that will influence your role now as President and CEO of the GRA?
From an advocacy standpoint, I think it will be important because I understand what restaurants go through. When somebody introduces a bill, to educate our lawmakers on how it will affect our restaurant industry in the state of Georgia. That piece is important. Also my experience in the restaurant industry running a business – even though this is a non-profit, it’s still a business. So making sure that we grow the GRA so we can do more things. That will be really, really important.

What’s your favorite type of food?
You know, I’m very fortunate. My husband is a chef. For him, it’s seasonality, so we don’t have really a favorite food. I just enjoy trying new things, exploring different restaurants and different cultures.

What’s been the best meal you’ve had this year?
Honestly, when we are in London, we’re fortunate enough to have dinner at Chiltern Firehouse, which is one of our go-to’s. We just love it. It’s farm to table. We sit at the back by the kitchen and watch what’s going on.

What do you like most about living in Georgia and Metro Atlanta?
I love the city. I love our restaurant scene. But what I’m most excited about is to travel to the different cities and understand what our members need, meeting our local officials.

I love Georgia. Having Georgia Grown and having the agriculture that we have here, it’s an added bonus for our industry. And of course with Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, you can get anywhere in the world from here.

I live in Roswell so we frequent [restaurants in] Roswell, Alpharetta and Milton, but we also get into Buckhead and Midtown, just trying out new restaurants. As many restaurants as we have in this city, you can go to a new restaurant every night and not repeat one.

Stephanie Fischer, left, and longtime mentor and restaurateur Regynald Washington.

You’ve been on the board with the GRA for a number of years before stepping into this role. 
I started on the board in 2017, and last year [2022] I was chairman of the board. I joined the executive committee in 2019. I’ve really enjoyed my time working on the board and and just being involved. It’s important.

Why do you think it’s important to be involved on boards and supporting the community in different ways?
It’s important to be involved because you’re giving back. I have had a fabulous career, and I am looking forward to spending this time trying to make our industry one of the best – and also making our industry in the state of Georgia where our restaurateurs want to be here and thrive in this state. Also making sure that we’re giving back to our industry and our communities. That’s one of my initiatives. At least twice a year, or maybe even quarterly, the GRA getting over to the Atlanta Food Bank and let’s go fill some boxes for an afternoon. I think it’s important.

What are you most looking forward to as you step into this new role?
Establishing these relationships. Whether it’s at the State Capitol, whether it’s in all of our major cities around the state getting to know our members, really understanding what’s going on in our industry. Because what may be happening here is not happening in Columbus or Athens or Augusta or Macon. So really getting to know everybody. I’m really excited about that.

What are some of the most pressing issues facing the restaurant industry today? 
Federally, there are two things. One is the FTC’s recent proposal to do away with junk fees. It’s everyone – airlines, rental cars, restaurants. They want to do away with all service fees and delivery fees with the exception of shipping and government charges, like taxes.

[According to the National Restaurant Association, the proposed rule would prohibit common guest-check add-ons like credit card processing fees, automatic gratuities for large parties, delivery order charges and service fees. Those fees would then have to be rolled into menu prices instead of being levied only when customers incur the specific costs.]

Everybody’s watching the FTC’s junk fee. It’s a little scary, not just for the restaurant industry, but for anybody who has any type of service fees and they want to build it into the pricing.

Then the other one is the NLRB’s [National Labor Relations Board] new joint employer rule. They are trying to make a new rule that is creating uncertainty and increased liability for franchise operators. The House Committee on Education and Workforce passed a Congressional Review Act [H.J. Res. 98] to counter the NLRB’s joint employer rule. So I know the National Restaurant Association is working on that on our behalf. [The U.S. House of Representatives voted to overturn the rule in January. While as of presstime it must still go to the Senate for consideration, it is unlikely to pass.]

In Georgia, of course staffing is still an issue and inflation. At a state level, we’re just seeing what’s going to happen at the Capitol, making sure once the session starts to just monitor it and see what’s going on.

How do you think the restaurant industry is changing and evolving right now?
Like any industry, I think the restaurant industry is keeping up with what’s going on. Technology is something that a lot of restaurants are looking to. How can I better my customer or my guest experience with technology?

How do you think the GRA helps strengthen Georgia, and how does it support the restaurant community throughout the state?
The GRA supports or advocates for the restaurant industry at the State Capitol and, at a local level, throughout the state of Georgia, whether you’re a member or not. That is what the GRA does.

That’s a really important piece. It ties back to how do restaurants operate in the state of Georgia, and how do we make it more friendly and more economical for our restaurants to operate?

Two, we look at membership. We advocate for every restaurant, whether you’re a member or not, so how do we show our members what additional value we bring? Why should you be a member? That’s one thing I want focus on this year, our membership. One, getting around the state and meeting our members. And two, finding out what additional value can we bring to our members?

Stephanie Fisher and the GRA board nad Gov. Kemp.

What do you see ahead for Georgia’s restaurant community? 
Continued growth. More either recognized or Michelin stars for our restaurants here in Atlanta, and hopefully that will grow outside the city of Atlanta. But really, positive growth and just having fun.

We have such a fabulous industry. That’s one thing Regynald has always told me is, you’ve got to have fun at what you do. I truly believe that, and I truly believe our industry is one that somebody can grow in.

That’s a message I really want to get out. People need to understand that our industry is more than just a dishwasher or a server or a cashier. You can grow your professional career throughout the restaurant industry, whether you own your own restaurant, whether you’re a GM, whether you get into finance, construction, HR. It’s a huge opportunity.

Our ProStart program that our educational foundation oversees is starting to grow. It’s getting into those high schools and showing these kids there is a career path here. We all know that the restaurant industry is a really hard industry, but it is so fun.

Who’s someone you admire in the industry?
Well one is my mentor, Regynald Washington. He’s just an amazing man. He gives back, he mentors. He mentored me for over 30 years. I wouldn’t be where I am today without him. He’s well respected throughout the industry.
I also really admire anybody who takes a chance and opens their own restaurant. It’s hard. And if you do it right, you can be highly successful.

How would you describe your leadership style?
I would say I’m very hands-off. You’ve got to trust your team to do the right thing. I am all about making sure that my team has the resources that they need to do their job, and then let them do it.

The best thing that you can do is surround yourself with people who know what they’re doing. So for me, it’s letting them do what they do best.

What’s one thing that surprised you about your career?
Where I am today! [Laughs] When you start off, you just never know where it’s going to lead. Then you look back and you’re like, oh, I’m so glad I did that.

You take a leap of faith. You have to take chances and you have to take on challenges that you may be scared to death of. But you grow.

I’m so excited about this chance to continue what Karen [Bremer, former GRA President & CEO] has done. Karen has taken the GRA to such a level, and my goal is just to keep building on it. She’s really done a fantastic job, and I’m excited about seeing where we can take it to the next level.

Originally published in Restaurant Informer on February 13, 2024 by Christy Simo.