NRAEF Celebrates Charity and Hard Work

The National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF) announced today its 2014 Restaurant Neighbor and Faces of Diversity American Dream award winners, who will be recognized at a gala on April 29, during the National Restaurant Association’s Public Affairs Conference in Washington, D.C.

The Foundation’s Restaurant Neighbor Award, developed in partnership with American Express, celebrates the outstanding charitable service performed by restaurant operators. Created 16 years ago, this award recognizes the impact restaurants and entrepreneurs have made on their local communities. The Faces of Diversity American Dream award, sponsored by PepsiCo Foodservice, is given to diverse members of the restaurant industry who have, through hard work and perseverance, achieved the American Dream.

“The restaurant industry has provided opportunities for millions of people throughout the U.S. and the recipients of the 2014 Restaurant Neighbor and Faces of Diversity awards demonstrate the incredible opportunities they have been able to create as a result of working in it,” says Rob Gifford, executive vice president of strategic operations and philanthropy for the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation. “We are proud to recognize the achievements of these seven national award winners, selected from a pool of hundreds of operators from around the country. Their dedication to the industry and commitment to achieving their dreams is truly exceptional.”

Recipients of the 2014 Restaurant Neighbor Award receive a $5,000 contribution to continue supporting their charitable initiatives. The winners were:

  • Matt Haley, CEO, SoDel Concepts (Rehoboth Beach, Delaware): At 35 years old, Matt Haley began his foodservice career as a dishwasher, after spending seven years in prison. He entered a vocational program and learned to cook and today owns seven of Rehoboth’s finest restaurants.

    To pay it forward, he established the Global Delaware Fund to administer goods and services to at-risk children and those in distressing situations, both locally and nationally. Named the 2014 James Beard Humanitarian of the Year, Haley has helped fund three schools and provide scholarships for students in Nepal, in addition to mentoring children and funding the education for youth who have been affected by school funding cuts.
  • Passport Pizza (Clinton Township, Michgan): Since 2005, Passport Pizza has served as a conduit for restaurants, vendors, and grocery stores to donate leftover food that is then distributed to nonprofits, shelters, projects, and soup kitchens throughout the community.

    Helping others help others, Passport Pizza takes pallets of food that may only have a three-day shelf life and distributes them to local partners who can immediately give the food to those who need it.  Passport Pizza’s relationships extend to a broad span of business leaders, nonprofits and community-based organizations to help countless people including youth, families, students, churches, single mothers and the homeless.
  • Cohn Restaurant Group (San Diego, California): In 1996, Lesly and David Cohn co-founded the Garfield High School Foundation and the culinary arts program—featuring a $2 million state-of-the-art kitchen, serving line and lecture center—that has graduated 2,000 at-risk youth to date.

    Teenage students that are considered high risk for dropping out learn culinary skills to prepare them for future careers in the restaurant industry. The foundation’s annual Thanksgiving fundraising luncheon, run by the students under the guidance of Cohn Restaurant Group’s chefs, has raised more than $300,000 over the past 16 years to benefit the program and staff have volunteered more than 4,000 hours.


  • Panda Restaurant Group (Rosemead, California): Panda Restaurant Group and its 25,000 associates are committed to giving their time and resources to support the communities they have the honor of serving. Established in 1999, Panda Cares promotes the spirit of giving by serving the health and education needs of underserved children. More than $41.5 million has been raised for charities and causes, including natural disaster relief in the United States and internationally.

    Panda Cares works with organizations across the U.S. to provide meals and raise funds in its close to 1,700 restaurants, which includes Panda Express, Panda Inn, and Hibachi-San. Additionally, Panda is committed to developing future leaders in the public school system through its Leader in Me program. Since, 2007, this program has served more than 150,000 students in 250 public schools in the United States.

The 2014 Faces of Diversity American Dream Award went to three restaurant entrepreneurs. The winners are:

  • Griselda Barajas, president and CEO, Griselda’s Catering (Sacramento, California): Barajas immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 12 years old and spent countless hours in the restaurant of Ninfa Laurenzo, the godmother of Tex-Mex cuisine, where her parents worked. Inspired to enter the restaurant industry, Barajas began her own catering business in 1993, but turned to blackjack when the business struggled to help make quick money to cover expenses and pay her employees.

    Today, Barajas has abandoned gambling and owns and operates a thriving catering business, as well as Griselda’s World Café in the Capitol building in the heart of Sacramento. She has received several small business awards, including Business Woman of the Year from the Sacramento and California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
  • Mansour Ghalibaf, owner, Hotel Northampton (Northampton, Massachusetts): In 1979, Ghalibaf, an Iranian immigrant, was attending college and working in a restaurant to pay his tuition when he was told he would be deported back to Tehran, at the height of the Iranian Revolution. Along with those closest to him, Ghalibaf endured a tense month under scrutiny from government officials and was on the brink of homelessness before he secured a visa to remain in the U.S.

    His status no longer in jeopardy, Ghalibaf pursued the American dream with dedication: he completed his college degree, got married and continued to excel in the hospitality industry. His persistence and passion for the industry allowed him to work his way up from the kitchen to a hotel owner. After serving as general manager of the historic, 106-room boutique Hotel Northampton, Ghalibaf purchased the hotel and has since grown sales from $2 million to $7 million. Ghalibaf has been named Restaurateur of the Year by the Massachusetts Restaurant Association and was inducted into the Massachusetts Hospitality Hall of Fame.
  • Jahangir Kabir, district supervisor, White Castle System, Inc. (Woodside, New York): The ninth of 10 children, Kabir immigrated to the U.S. from Bangladesh in 1990 and, with the help of an older brother who was already in the country, was hired by White Castle as a cook. In just six months, the very determined Kabir learned English, so he could begin to interact with White Castle’s customers, and both front- and back-of-house operations. Kabir’s strong emphasis on customer service led to his promotion to general manager after just four years.

    He has since grown to district supervisor, overseeing nearly 200 employees. All eight of his restaurants have received an award of excellence from White Castle. In addition to his success in the restaurant industry, Kabir has a relentless commitment to giving back to his community and is currently pursuing a Doctor of Business Administration degree at Wilmington University in Delaware, where he plans to write his dissertation on customer satisfaction in the restaurant industry.

“PepsiCo’s diverse and inclusive culture has been a key driver of our success as a company for many years,” says Doug Allison, vice president, Industry Relations, PepsiCo Foodservice. “We’re proud to have been a part of the Faces of Diversity American Dream Award since 2006, and each year we are humbled by the stories of such hardworking individuals who have truly achieved the American Dream. They represent the myriad opportunities the restaurant industry offers and the variety of paths one can take to achieve their goals.”

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