After 37 years with the Colorado Restaurant Association, Pete Meersman is celebrating his retirement. After a stint on the Mile High Chapter board, Pete came to the CRA in 1982 as a Membership Representative. He eventually rose to Membership Sales Director, and then to President and CEO of the organization. After Sonia Riggs transitioned into the role of CEO and President in 2014, Pete became our Chief Strategy Officer. This is his recollection of his career, in his own words.
After graduating from college in 1971, I took a job tending bar at Fisherman’s Cove at 1512 Curtis Street in downtown Denver. That was the beginning of my hospitality career in Colorado, and I was making more money than I had ever made in my life! Bye-bye, law school! I loved the hospitality business – great people, lots of laughs, fun atmosphere, and more. This was an era when “Momma could cook, and Daddy could pour the drinks” was a successful restaurant ownership path.
In 1975, when I was the F&B Manager at the Holiday Inn in Vail, I got my first up-close look at how the government can impact the hospitality business. A Vail city councilman was trying to pass a city law to require all foodservice workers to get a tuberculosis test. It would cost $75 at the Vail Clinic and require two visits. TB is not a foodborne illness, no other workers (including hospital workers) would be required to be tested, and TB tests at Denver General were $5 at the time. Interestingly, the city councilman who proposed this idea was an owner of the Vail Clinic. I rounded up some other hospitality managers and we stormed the city council meeting where the idea was being discussed. We killed the measure. That’s when I caught the “lobbying bug.”
In 1982, the company for whom I was managing a big restaurant was sold, and for the first (and only) time in my life, I was terminated. I was on CRA’s Mile High Chapter board of directors, and I had participated in several membership drives with the chapter. So I talked to Don Quinn, CRA’s long-time Executive Director, about a temporary job selling CRA memberships. Don knew that I could sell memberships, and he was willing to give me a job, but only if I promised to stay at CRA for two years. I made the promise. And I was immediately put on straight commission as a Membership Representative. CRA had less than $200,000 in total assets at the time.
My role at CRA evolved from Membership Director to Membership Sales Director to Executive Director to President & CEO. I always knew my job with CRA was to advocate for its members, and I worked hard to grow CRA into a powerful lobbying entity and membership trade association.
In 2012, I was asked by one of our officers, “What happens if a bus hits you?” So I wrote out a Succession Plan for CRA in case that happened. But doing that made me think about my future. I was 64 at the time, and working around 60 hours per week. The restaurant business was not getting any easier for our members. We were (and still are) being attacked by unions, government bureaucrats, elected officials, some of our suppliers, do-gooders, environmentalists, and even other entities in the hospitality business. It was time for me to find a new, energetic and passionate leader to take CRA into the future without jeopardizing our past accomplishments.
In 2013, we hired Sonia Riggs. Sonia had a background in hospitality and in association management, and she had the “hospitality gene.” She became CRA’s Chief Operating Officer in 2013, and President & CEO in 2014 – which is also when I stepped into the Chief Strategy Officer role.
October 31, 2019, was my last day with CRA. I don’t intend to take another job. I’m healthy. I really enjoyed my 37 year career with CRA, and running restaurants for 11 years before that. And I have the satisfaction of having been able to take CRA to a higher level than it was when I started.
The future of the hospitality industry in Colorado and every other state is unknown. When will our prices be so high that people stop eating out at restaurants? How will we modernize our operations to deal with ever-increasing labor costs? When will politicians and bureaucrats realize they are killing entry-level jobs, forcing closure of neighborhood restaurants, and hurting the millions of foodservice workers they insist they are trying to help?
Please continue to support CRA. They will be there to try to protect your business from further harm. And please think about who you vote for very carefully – let’s elect restaurant-friendly candidates.
Thank you for supporting me, and thank you especially for supporting CRA!
Pete's last day was October 31, 2019, but we hope to see him at many CRA events in the future. We wish him the best in his retirement.
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