He was at a local pizza place when he got the call. It was the governor’s office, letting him know that Jay Inslee needed to talk with him within the hour.
Anthony Anton left the restaurant to await the news. Soon, Washington state’s governor was informing him that, because of the rapidly spreading novel coronavirus, dine-in service at restaurants statewide was shutting down the next day: March 16, 2020.
Just over a third of the state’s full-service restaurants and taverns—nearly 2,400 out of some 7,000—were unable to recover due to that initial shutdown and ultimately went out of business, according to Anton (’93 Poli. Sci.), CEO of the Olympia-based Washington Hospitality Association (WHA), which tracks the data. During the second but shorter shut-down in November 2020, another approximately 1,000 restaurants statewide closed permanently.
“There hasn’t been a darker time in the industry,” Anton says.
COVID-19 threw the hospitality industry into crisis and, Anton says, it could take years— he estimates four or five—before it rebounds. Since the start of the pandemic, Anton has been working closely with hospitality constituents and state officials from public health experts to the governor to help craft public policy and secure relief surrounding COVID-19.
“Hospitality is what I know,” says Anton, who “grew up in a very, very Greek household.” All four of his grandparents immigrated from Greece. One grandfather was a dishwasher at the famed Historic Davenport Hotel in Spokane. The other opened a café in Orting. Anton’s father later owned a series of restaurants in Puyallup.
“That was our life. That was our family. Everyone was involved,” Anton says. “And that is where my heart is. My heart is in small business. It’s in a person opening a place and chasing a dream.”
Today, the WHA has about 6,000 members representing restaurants, lodging, vendors, and entertainment venues statewide. It’s “the bridge between the hospitality industry and government,” Anton says. “We want Washington to be the best place in the world to run a restaurant or hotel.”
Under his leadership, the association has advocated for and helped distribute more than $500 million in state and local grants for hospitality businesses affected by the pandemic. It has also helped secure an additional $500 million in state and local tax relief. And it has delivered more than $10 million in value to members in each of the first two years of the pandemic—through webinars, consulting, legal and regulatory guidance, and more.
While dine-in was no longer an option, some establishments were able to pivot, switching to takeout or delivery business models. Still, Anton says, “We let (much of) our workforce go for the better part of eight months. That’s what makes us uniquely impacted by the pandemic.”
Today, he notes, “We’re still short [on] about 23,000 workers. And our vendors are short truck drivers. We have major challenges to address, but people are starting to feel optimistic.”
Since Anton took the helm in 2006, the WHA has tripled in size, merging trade organizations for state restaurant and lodging industries. It helped reestablish a state tourism department after a decade without one and helped shape more than 125 state laws, mandates, and regulations, including the state’s unemployment insurance system. WHA also worked on the privatization of liquor sales and was instrumental in creating the state’s family leave program.
“My job is never boring,” says Anton, who oversees about 50 people and emphasizes teamwork. “Anthony has an innate ability to find and recruit wonderful leaders,” says Phil Costello (x’89), WHA’s chief operating officer. “He really values opinions that are different from his own and works to make sure diverse voices are included in decisions.”
The association recently invested $250,000 at Washington State University to establish an up-to-date industry financial health dashboard. Anton sits on the WSU Hospitality Business Management Advisory Board and was inducted into WSU’s Hospitality Hall of Fame in March. He’s known for hiring WSU hospitality alumni to work for the association—more than 20 in all.
A few of the hospitality industry trends he predicts include the increased use of technology, such as QR codes and robots, for ordering, scheduling, and delivery, as well as continued emphasis on outdoor dining. “Outdoor dining is going to be more permanent,” Anton says. “It brings us out into the community, and it’s going to be a big part of who we are going forward.”
His latest pilot project spotlights Pullman. He’s working to create a city-state-WSU partnership to test and study best practices around industry sustainability, then inform industry leaders and others nationwide. Its working title: “Pullman Saves the Planet.”
Anton typically visits Pullman for two weeks each year, often repeating to hospitality students some of the best advice he says he’s ever received in the industry: “Treat everyone like they’re the best guest ever.”
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