Restaurant Staples

Oscar Hernandez on the Hispanic community’s growing influence in the restaurant industry and how the industry gives back to the community

The mural on the ceiling of Homeboy’s LAX bakery depicts the former lives of Homeboy employees.

From the ceiling of a steel-encased bakery in the Los Angeles International Airport, a pair of painted, honey-colored eyes stares out from heavy, half-closed eyelids. They seem tired or resigned as they watch customers approach sandwiches cooling behind curved glass. The mural stretches across the ceiling of the shop, an urban silhouette against a vibrant landscape. A former gang member, now a member of the Homeboy Industries community, painted it. It is meant to depict the lives of ex-gang members.

While the mural is open to the interpretation of the observer, the mission of Homeboy, which owns and operates the bakery in conjunction with Areas USA, is not. The organization’s objective is simple: “Jobs not Jails.”

Oscar Hernandez, executive vice president of operations for Areas USA
Oscar Hernandez, executive vice president of operations for Areas USA

These words appealed to executives at Areas, a company that provides restaurant and retail services to airports and turnpikes. Oscar Hernandez, Areas’ executive vice president of operations, says everyone at the company believes in the power of giving back. Areas has the resources and expertise to partner with Homeboy, an organization that offers counseling, tattoo removal, job training, and other services meant to help formerly gang-involved men and women redirect their lives and become contributing members of society.

Working with Homeboy, Hernandez makes a positive impact in the Hispanic community, an initiative that’s close to his heart. He was previously heavily involved with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Atlanta and still supports them extensively. When talking about the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Hernandez stresses how the importance of providing a network that can offer advice to young, Hispanic entrepreneurs and workers cannot be overstated. “Sometimes it’s difficult for [Hispanics] to seek advice outside of their comfort zone,” Hernandez explains. “The chamber allows them to network with
people who are similar.”

Hernandez’s time with Areas and the National Restaurant Association has painted a vivid picture of the impact the Hispanic community has on the American restaurant industry. According to the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan Washington, DC think tank, in 2010, 22 percent of more than 9.5 million restaurant workers were Hispanic or Latino. Hernandez adds that the National Restaurant Association expects business and employment in that sector to grow rapidly because young Americans are more accustomed to dining out than generations before them. The Aspen Institute quantified this growth, saying employment in bars and restaurants is expected to grow by nine percent between 2010 and 2020.
This trend goes deeper than familiar arguments about education and employment opportunities. Hernandez believes the restaurant industry at all levels is a natural haven for Hispanic workers because it speaks to their culture.

“By nature, Hispanics welcome people into their homes,” he says. “A home environment is often a celebration. It is natural for someone in our culture to be passionate about good food and sharing it with others.”

Growth is apparent at all levels of the business, including the C-suite. Hernandez mentions Jose Armario, an executive vice president at McDonald’s Corporation, and Don Thompson, the company’s first African-American CEO. These examples are in Hernandez’s mind when he mentors young business-minded people with little more than a vision and a plan.

In 2010, 22 percent of more than 9.5 million restaurant workers were Hispanic or Latino. Employment in bars and restaurants is expected to grow by nine percent from 2010 to 2020.

Hernandez remembers a time in 2005, when he spoke to high school students, explaining that jobs in the restaurant industry go beyond being a dishwasher or busser. Work in a restaurant can grow into a passion that can support an entire family. “Talking to them gave me an opportunity to talk about diversity—not from a race or background perspective, but from a business perspective,” he says. “It is about understanding our markets, which are diverse and multicultural. In the end, it’s about having principles, hospitality, fairness, caregiving, and respect.”With those ideals in mind, more students of Hispanic and other backgrounds can find a career path in the restaurant industry, sometimes through organizations like Homeboy. Hopefully, though, most of them will never need the support of such an organization in the first place. With hope, the pair of hooded, honey-colored eyes depicted in the mural on the bakery ceiling will have the confidence to look toward a brighter future.