Shawn Townsend to Lead DC Restaurant Industry in Challenging Post-Pandemic Moment 

Restaurants face reduced post-pandemic traffic and minimum wage increase


The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington (RAMW) has tapped Shawn Townsend as its next president and CEO, effective mid-January, replacing Kathy Hollinger. 

For more than 90 years, RAMW, a 501(c)6 trade association, has promoted and represented the interests of restaurants and the regional food service industry in the District, Northern Virginia and Maryland. It currently has more than 700 members. 

SEE ALSO: Housing Demand Shaped by Increasing Desire to Move and Shifting Migration Trends

In his new role, Townsend will be charged with devising and pushing policy and fostering member engagement.

“It’s a lot, especially coming out of the pandemic,” he told Commercial Observer. “We need to figure out how to continue to advocate for an industry that has been severely impacted over the last couple of years. That will be a crucial responsibility for me and the organization as a whole.”  

Initiative 82, the phasing out of the tip wage credit by 2027, will be one of the major issues for Townsend once he steps into the job, with worry that restaurants may leave for Maryland or Virginia. RAMW was one of the biggest opponents of Initiative 82.

“We’ll be looking at the aftermath of I-82 being passed in D.C., which is definitely at the top of my agenda,” Townsend said. “This is a pivotal moment for restaurants in D.C.”

Passing in November with 74 percent of the vote, Initiative 82 will increase the minimum wage for tipped employees from $5.35 to match the minimum wage of non-tipped employees in 2027, which is currently $15.20. On Jan. 1, 2023, the minimum wage for tipped workers is slated to increase to $6 an hour, it will go to $8 an hour by July 1, and increase by $2 a year every July until 2027.

“Now it’s about navigating and getting operators accustomed to what business looks like without the tip wage credit,” Townsend said. “No one really knows what this is going to look like and we are concerned that businesses will end up closing, and we’re trying to figure out how we can protect restaurants from going down that path.” 

Townsend will also be doing his part to help D.C. restaurants deal with labor shortages and a dwindling office environment. In 2022, 48 restaurants closed in the District, following 40 closures in 2021. Among those were popular staples like Thamee, Rappahannock Oyster Bar, and DBGB Kitchen & Bar. 

“We need to figure out how to work with partners to build a system where we’re able to funnel some new workers into the industry,” Townsend said. “During COVID, lots of industries lost workers, and it’s imperative among all of us to find ways to bring people back to the hospitality industry, the restaurant industry more specifically.”

Still, he remains optimistic about what’s to come.

“In D.C., we are the home of Michelin-star restaurants and we pride ourselves on the majority of our restaurant operators being locally owned,” he said. “Prior to the pandemic, there was an economic study that showed $7 billion was spent at night, and the city was generating half a billion in sales tax revenue. That equated to more than 65,000 jobs in the District, and I do believe we can get back to that point and even surpass those numbers.”

From 2018 to 2021, Townsend served as director of the D.C. mayor’s Office of Nightlife and Culture, earning the nickname “The Night Mayor.”

Over his time as Night Mayor, Townsend produced the first-ever report on the $7 billion economic impact of D.C.’s nightlife industry and advised restaurants during pandemic shutdowns and mandates.

Most recently, he worked as a political consultant for Dewey Square Group, where he led the state and local affairs teams. Previously, Townsend worked for the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration, overseeing investigators who deal with complaints and inspections of bars, restaurants, and other alcohol-serving establishments in D.C.

“I felt like I was well suited for this job given my previous experience in the Office of Nightlife and Culture and also my experience in the industry overall,” he said. “When you factor in my knowledge of the regulations in addition to having a keen sense of where we were a couple of years ago pre-pandemic, I felt like I could really help the industry.”

Hollinger left her position as RAMW president after 10 years in the role this past October to oversee Greater Washington Partnership, a civic alliance of regional business leaders. 

Keith Loria can be reached at