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Think of All the Gay Waiters and Lesbian Bartenders

Owners and managers in the restaurant world -- an industry not known for benefits or protections -- are trying to create a better work environment for all.

This is Pride season, the time to recognize the impact the LGBTQ community makes on all aspects of society, including the food service industry. Both restaurant employees and customers will be celebrating pre-Pride parade brunches, a quick bite before a festival or dinner, and a cold drink after a concert. Restaurants across the country play a key part of the experience -- and our industry aims to welcome everyone to the table.

The LGBTQ community brings incredible talent, innovative concepts, and fresh perspectives to restaurants. As the nation's second-largest employer, the restaurant and food service industry is made up of nearly 15 million Americans -- many of whom are part of the LGBTQ community. They represent hardworking restaurant owners, entrepreneurs, managers, chefs, bartenders, and service staff who are helping our industry grow. According to the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, LGBTQ entrepreneurs own 1.4 million businesses and contribute more than $1.7 trillion to the United States economy annually.

Although this month is a time for celebration, we must also recognize that there is still more work to be done to ensure our industry is diverse, inclusive, and a place where people from all backgrounds feel welcome and accepted. The National Center for Transgender Equality reports that transgender Americans are three times more likely to be unemployed and twice as likely to live in poverty than the general population. Nationwide, more than 1.4 million people identify as transgender and nearly 90 percent have experienced employment discrimination, harassment, or mistreatment.

Employment discrimination has sadly become the norm for many transgender people. That is why the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, along with the California Restaurant Association, is proud to recognize Michaela Mendelsohn as one of our 2018 Faces of Diversity award winners, honoring champions of diversity and inclusion in the restaurant industry.

A successful transgender business woman and community activist, Michaela has worked tirelessly to break down barriers within our industry. She knows firsthand what it feels like to hide her identity to be successful, facing resistance, but never choosing to walk away from the challenge. Michaela has devoted her life and her livelihood to helping eliminate those barriers for others.

As owner and chief executive of the Pollo West Corporation, an El Pollo Loco franchisee, Michaela has ensured that her company is a welcome environment for transgender people to work and thrive. In the past several years, she has hired over 40 transgender employees in her restaurants with 25 percent making the pathway to management. She is also the founder of TransCanWork, the first large-scale program of its kind that trains employers to create more transgender-friendly work environments and helps connect transgender employees to jobs. Michaela is on the board of the Trevor Project, which works to eliminate suicide in LGBTQ youth ages 13 to 25 years old, and has been recognized by The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and more for her amazing work to educate and inspire the restaurant community.

Stories like Michaela's make us hopeful that we are making progress, not just as an industry, but also as a society. We encourage every restaurant to be supportive of the LGBTQ community and provide resources that help foster safe work and dining environments. It is our goal that both employees and customers feel comfortable being and expressing who they are when they go to work or sit down for a meal in a restaurant.

As we celebrate, we need to remember that Pride extends beyond parades and festivals. It is about embracing one another through genuine love, care, and respect. We have nothing to lose by being more inclusive, and everything to gain.

To learn more about Michaela's powerful story and how you can integrate diversity into your restaurants, visit

DAWN SWEENEY is the president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association and the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation.

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Dawn Sweeney