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DiRoNA to Include Casual Dining, Fast Food
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From Ron Ruggless of Nation's Restaurant News: Board members of the Distinguished Restaurants of North America, or DiRoNA, voted on Monday to broaden the group's membership from white-tablecloth restaurants to notable independent casual-dining and even quick-service operators.

The expansion is the first change in DiRoNA's membership since the group's founding in 1990, and comes as the fine-dining segment, historically the group's focus, has suffered from economic pressures and the closures of many legendary restaurants.

"This is a complete repositioning of DiRoNA to meet the economic challenges," said Bill Hyde, chairman of DiRoNA. DiRoNA members will now work within five U.S. regional councils, each headed by a coordinator, to oversee inspection of potential candidates. There are councils and coordinators from Canada and Mexico as well.

About 800 restaurants have been selected as DiRoNA members in the group's 19 years, an honor typically defining quality in all aspects of hospitality, from food to service.

"We had to have a growth strategy," Hyde said. "The DiRoNA model had worked up until the last couple of years or so. Our growth strategy was to broaden our member base by offering a membership model that embraces diversity under the banner of 'Distinguished Dining' without compromising the standards of excellence that have kept the DiRoNA brand."

He said the changes broaden DiRoNA's positioning and consumer appeal "while preserving our focus on consistent food quality, exceptional service and community legacy."

"These are hallmarks of a truly unique dining experience and these are what our DiRoNA members and DiRoNA patrons expect of us," Hyde said.

DiRoNA will now make membership open in three categories, with the first two subject to inspection by the group's representatives:

- "Timeless Traditional," which will remain for fine-dining establishments open at least two years with dress codes and extensive beverage lists.

- "Creative Casual," which will feature restaurants at least three years old with noteworthy cuisine and in a notable atmosphere with a "smart, casual" dress code.

- "Legendary Landmark," which includes restaurants at least 10 years old that are "deeply integrated into the cultural fabric of the region" with celebrated menu offerings, a unique atmosphere and media recognition.

Membership fees have been reduced from a "marketing fee" of $1,500 a year, to $400 a year for all categories.

The largest departure from the past is in the last category, which will highlight "celebrated comfort food and legendary regional fare." That is the only category that doesn't have to pass an inspection, but nominations will be made by DiRoNA members and restaurants must have local-media recognition.

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