Bragging Rights

A Restaurant Champion

By Joyce Reingold

Dr. Emily Williams Knight leads Texas
restaurants through pandemic challenges.

Dr. Emily Williams Knight was with her family on a spring getaway when she got the call: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott was going to close restaurant dining rooms across the state in response to the coronavirus, which was beginning its virulent spread across the United States. Those were to be the last days of rest Walden alumna Knight, the CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association and Education Foundation, would experience for a long time.

“Before that call came in, individual counties were making decisions, and individual cities,” she says. “It was chaos. When Gov. Abbott decided to make a blanket set of closures, it was a sense of relief. It gave us a moment to pause and to think about what we were going to do next.”

The order also introduced unprecedented challenge for the Texas restaurant industry—and for Knight. She’d joined the TRA and Education Foundation only seven months earlier, becoming the first woman in her position as well as the organization’s first new leader in more than 30 years. The order from Gov. Abbot ensured that Knight hit the ground running in her new job. To meet the challenge, she called upon skills she learned during her business career in global hospitality, as well as the PhD she earned at Walden University.

“When you’re trying to carry a voice in a crisis and you have doctorate credentials next to your name, it gives you an entree,” says Knight, who earned her Doctor of Education (EdD) with a specialization in Higher Education Leadership from Walden in 2016. “That credential alone automatically allows people to acknowledge, wow, that person’s done the work; that person has invested that time. And when the pandemic hit, I had to establish credibility very quickly. That credential helped a lot.”

Knight’s immediate goal was to mitigate the loss of revenue and jobs. In 2019, Texas restaurants had sales of $70 billion and employed 1.5 million people. By mid-April 2020, 750,000 restaurant employees were out of work.

“We only had about 37% of our 50,000 restaurants prepared to offer drive-through or takeout delivery. So, we just creatively thought of all the ways that we could sustain them through new revenue sources,” she says. “We passed a series of innovative measures, things like curbside alcohol-to-go and a grocery waiver that allowed restaurants to become grocery outlets because our grocery stores were overrun.”

To accomplish their goals, Knight’s team collaborated closely with other agencies and officials. “We worked with the comptroller on tax relief,” she explained. “We worked with all of our city officials to expand patios and outdoor dining. We reached out to third-party delivery companies to reduce fees. And we did all this while also navigating all of the federal stimulus bills, the CARES Act, and the Families First Act.”

She also worked with Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, to convince Congress to pass the Paycheck Protection Program Flexibility Act of 2020, which extended the time businesses have to spend federal funds and obtain loan forgiveness.

“The sort of great story is, I’m a brand-new CEO having replaced someone that was in the job more than 35 years. And I found the only congressman that I knew before the crisis hit in Texas, Congressman Roy, and I said, we’ve got to pass a bill to get this done. And he partnered with a Democratic congressman out of Minnesota (Rep. Dean Phillips), who was also brand new. … And we only had one ‘no’ vote on both sides of Congress,” she says. “It was a great example of a state association leaning into federal politics. And I’ll be honest: I was probably that bold because I didn’t know any better. You’re fearless when you’re new and you see opportunity.”
John B. Gessner, chair of the TRA’s board of directors, says it was Knight’s strength and determination, coupled with her broad experience in hospitality and education, that led to her selection as CEO after a search that drew 500 applicants.

“Emily had barely finished her transition period into the TRA leadership team when the COVID-19 pandemic struck,” Gessner says. “She fearlessly faced this daunting challenge to the hospitality industry and immediately became the champion of the restaurant industry in Texas. Her tireless efforts and understanding of how to motivate team members and appeal to elected officials have saved countless businesses and industry jobs in Texas.”

Knight says she never could have imagined leading the association through a pandemic. But her Walden education prepared her for this in other ways, too.

“I think, honestly, the ability that I had to manage this job, which was about 18 hours a day, my family, the crisis of 50,000 restaurants … is because of my experience with Walden. When you go through a rigorous degree program as a working adult, you’re managing all of your personal and professional obligations while managing your studies. Once you stretch that muscle, it doesn’t go back,” she explained. “I think people were surprised at my capacity to handle all of it. But I honestly strengthened that by my Walden degree. … My experience at Walden definitely paid off during the crisis.”