It’s no secret that Virginians love their restaurants, but now the state tourism agency and a Virginia restaurant trade organization have joined together to make it official with a new campaign: “Virginia is for Restaurant Lovers.”

The slogan draws on the 50-year-old “Virginia is for Lovers” brand and aims to raise awareness about the restaurants in Virginia and their importance to local and state economies.

The restaurant industry in Virginia generates $18.1 billion each year, and its 14,000 restaurants are responsible for more than 378,000 jobs representing 9% of employment in the state, according to data from the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association trade group. By comparison, agriculture, the state’s largest private industry, has an economic impact of $70 billion annually and provides more than 334,000 jobs in Virginia, according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

“People travel from all over to experience food and drink in Virginia,” Rita McClenny, president of the Virginia Tourism Corp., said at the brand launch event Wednesday at the Vagabond restaurant in downtown Richmond.

“The focus and goal is to increase restaurant visitation in Virginia — and visitation to Virginia.”

Jack Berry, president of Richmond Region Tourism, echoed that sentiment, adding that 30 percent of travel decisions are made with food and drink options in mind.

Still, the restaurant business is competitive. In the Richmond area, the restaurant market has grown at twice the pace of the population in recent years, according to recent reporting from the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The Richmond area saw a nearly 10% increase in the number of restaurants added in the past four years while the population growth in the same time period was just over 4%.

“The restaurant business is a tough business,” said Lester Johnson, owner of Mama J’s and Vagabond. “Richmond is a tough place to be a restaurant owner.”

Johnson said he appreciates efforts to help the industry and its owners.

For Eric Terry, president of the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association trade organization, helping the operators is a key part of the “Virginia is for Restaurant Lovers” campaign.

“One of our goals for this campaign is to build more restaurant collaboration through membership in the VRLTA to benefit the industry as a whole, which will lead to increased advocacy at the state and local levels, workforce resources and of course customers,” Terry said.

He cited working with the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority to make the licensing process a little easier, addressing labor shortages, and working against an elimination of tipped wages as key goals for the organization.

“There were dozens of bills filed last [state legislative] session to raise minimum wage, eliminate tipped wage, predictive scheduling requirements, etc.,” Terry said. “In the Senate, a minimum wage bill was killed by one.”

The elimination of tipped wages could hurt the full-service restaurant industry, Terry said, as 70% of those employees at those restaurants rely on tips. A tipped wage is an amount below the federal minimum wage that employers such as restaurants are allowed to pay their workers if the workers also receive tips.

But the legislative portion is to come. To start, “Virginia is for Restaurant Lovers” will be rolling out a series of launch events in 2020 to celebrate the campaign. Visit virginiaisforrestaurantlovers.com for details.

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kpeifer@richmond.com

(804) 649-6321

Twitter: @KarriPeifer

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