When you’re away from home, the need for a meal is often inevitable, so you find yourself sitting down at a popular joint or picking up a sandwich at some place quick. Dropping those dining dollars adds up to big business in Oklahoma.

The food-service industry provides the second-highest number of private-sector jobs in the state – more than 185,000 people, or 11 percent of the total job base, according to the National Restaurant Association.

Oklahoma’s 7,000-plus restaurants generate more than $7.6 billion in annual sales. Those figures, added with hospitality-related sectors (including educational programs and hotels), make the question “Where should we eat?” fiscally important for the state.

The Oklahoma Restaurant Association, with more than 4,000 members, provides training for new restaurants, a foundation to benefit tourism and scholarship opportunities; hosts culinary events; and lobbies on food-service issues at the state and federal levels.

Patti Colley, chief strategy officer for the group, says it “is recognized as one of the largest and most effective organizations in Oklahoma … and constantly monitors regulatory and legislative issues.”

She says the association’s services include food-safety and alcohol-server training, a legal resource center, group insurance programs, educational programming, professional certifications and the state’s largest food-service trade show.

Established in 1933, the restaurant association has increased its scope and influence because tourism has increased over the decades to become the third-largest industry in the state, with about 21 million travelers visiting Oklahoma each year.

Oklahoma Restaurant Association’s A Tasteful Affair Legislative Reception is an annual gathering of more than 600 legislators, government officials and restaurant, lodging and tourism professionals.

The Oklahoma Hospitality Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the association, promotes career opportunities with scholarships for students pursuing degrees in hotel management, food service or the hospitality industry. The foundation also has work-based mentoring programs to obtain certifications and accreditations, Colley says.

She mentions that the foundation has awarded more than $600,000 in scholarships and hosts annual culinary and management competitions for students in more than 30 schools and technology centers across Oklahoma. Its soon-to-be-launched program called HospitAbilites provides skills-based assessments and certification opportunities for students.

The restaurant association, the foundation and other organizations collaborate throughout the year to put on various events, such as Thirst for a Cause, an annual wine-tasting fundraiser featuring about 30 wineries. Proceeds help with urgent medical expenses of hospitality workers.

“Through our vision, we lead Oklahoma’s food-service and hospitality industry by elevating its prosperity, prominence and participation, enhancing the quality of life for all we serve,” Colley says.