As the deadline to apply for the 2013 National Restaurant Association awards approaches, the 2012 winners wrap up a year highlighted by the honor of receiving the Faces of Diversity and Restaurant Neighbor awards.
The NRA and PepsiCo Foodservice created the Faces of Diversity award in 2006 to recognize and promote diversity in the restaurant industry. Individuals are chosen based on their achievements, impact, and ability to help others accomplish the “American Dream.” The 2012 recipients were Leah Chase, chef/owner of Dooky Chase restaurant in New Orleans; Jorge Levy, owner of Desperados Mexican Restaurant in Dallas; and Bahjat Shariff, senior vice president of operations and operating partner for Panera Bread/Howley Bread Group.
Each of the winners received an all-expense paid trip to the April 2012 NRA Public Affairs Conference in Washington, D.C., as well as the presentation of a $2,500 scholarship in their name to a student pursuing a career in the hospitality industry.
Levy moved to Dallas from Mexico when he was 16, and he cites his involvement in the city’s restaurant business and charitable organizations as the factors that helped him stand out in the application process.
“I’ve been in this business for 37 years, and pretty much ever since then I have always tried to help others,” he says. “This country has given me so much.”
Levy is the founder and organizer of the Desperados Cinco de Mayo Celebration for Children, a festival to benefit local charities. He also works with Savor Mexico, which raises money for scholarships for students in Dallas schools. He is the director of the Dallas Margarita Society and oversees Dallas’ annual St. Patrick’s Day parade.
Every year, Levy says he buys gift certificates from local grocery stores and takes them to a local church to make sure families in need can afford groceries for the holidays.
I’m semi-retired but I like to stay active,” he says. “I just like to help other people while I can.”
Levy says besides congratulations from friends and customers, nothing more in his business or charities changed after receiving the award.
"I wasn’t doing this work to get any awards,” he adds. “This is what I like to do.”
The Restaurant Neighbor Award honors restaurants for outstanding community involvement and innovative community programs. It was developed by the NRA and American Express and recognizes four winners—one small business, one mid-size business, one large business/national chain, and one humanitarian of the year. Businesses apply on the state level first, and then participating state restaurant associations select up to four winners to compete on the national level.
Applicants are judged on commitment, involvement, and impact in the community. State winners receive a plaque for their restaurant, and national winners are awarded an all-expense paid trip to Washington, D.C., and $5,000 to support their favorite charity.
The 2012 winner for small business was Todd Maurer, the chef/owner at King Eider’s Pub and Restaurant in Damariscotta, Maine. He had received the state-level award in past years for the Community Energy Fund of Lincoln County, but this was the first national recognition and the first monetary award for the non-profit.
Maurer started the Community Energy Fund in 2005 with two other business people in his hometown. The fund raises money to help local citizens with the high costs of heating their homes during New England winters. Most of the houses heat with oil, Maurer says, and use up to an average of 275 gallons twice a season.
“After Katrina, we were looking down the gun barrel of higher fuel prices, and what happens to the people that fall between the cracks when prices go up? That’s how we started this,” he says.
There are no administrative costs involved in the fund, and every dollar raised goes directly toward helping community members. Community Energy Fund sends out an appeal letter to the county to fundraise, and has an ad in the local paper every week. Summer tourists sometimes donate through the “Adopt Me” program, which allows them to give back to neighbors or community members who may watch their summer homes during the winter.
All of the $5,000 from American Express went into the fund, Maurer says, and the recognition has helped elevate the organization’s visibility in the community.
“Winning this award verified that what we do in the community is good and it was seen on a national level,” he says. “To be recognized by a company like American Express strengthens what your cause is, and it gives more validity to your fund.”
The mid-size winner was Taste Buds Management in New Orleans, and the humanitarian award went to Tammy and Noel Cunningham of Strings Restaurant in Denver.
The winner of the Restaurant Neighbor Award for the large business category deals with a much broader community—more than 50 cities and four countries—but it still benefited from the awareness raised by the award. ARAMARK Building Community (ABC), winner of the award, was launched in 2008 and develops long-term partnerships with community centers around the world to focus on crucial issues in each community, such as health and wellness education, access to basic needs, and workforce readiness.
“It’s not about winning the award,” says Bev Dribin, vice president of community relations for ARAMARK. “It’s about creating awareness for the important work of the community centers, and the award allowed us to do this. It created visibility, helped us get more recognition for what the community centers are doing, and that was really our focus.”
The $5,000 from the award was donated to Families International, which was created by ABC partner Alliance for Children & Families.
Last spring, ARAMARK Building Community also announced the creation of 15 community opportunity zones, which emphasize core issues in the community, such as job development and health and wellness.
"We look at our relationship with community centers like our relationship with our clients—we’re here with our expertise so they can focus on what they do best,” Dribin says.
Examples include ARAMARK dieticians helping parents develop healthy eating habits for their children, or volunteers refurbishing a playground to encourage outdoor activity.
“This isn’t just about coming in and giving a donation,” Dribin emphasizes. “It’s about our ongoing support and resources to make that community stronger.”
The National Restaurant Association is accepting nominations and applicants for the 2013 Faces of Diversity Award, 2013 Restaurant Neighbor Award, and the Kids Recipe Challenge until January 7, 2013.