The National Restaurant Association today recognized three restaurants and one industry leader with its 2011 Restaurant Neighbor Award. The award celebrates outstanding service efforts that restaurateurs perform in their respective communities.

This year’s winners are: Eat’n Park Hospitality Group, the Pittsburgh-based parent of the Eat’n Park restaurant chain, in the large business category; Charleston Chefs Feed The Need, a consortium composed of 52 Charleston, South Carolina-based restaurants, in the mid-size business category; and Kona Kai Coffee Company, a gourmet coffee shop in Kent, Washington, in the small business category. Michael Whalen, president and chief executive of Moline, Iowa-based Heart of America Restaurants, is this year’s Cornerstone Humanitarian.

“The restaurant industry first and foremost is about hospitality and serving people, and community service is a natural extension of that,” says Dawn Sweeney, National Restaurant Association president and CEO.

“We are pleased to present the Restaurant Neighbor Award to some of the most inspiring examples of philanthropy in our industry. Their dedicated efforts have helped improve the lives of many, and embody our mission to enhance the quality of life for all we serve.”

The winners each received the award and a $5,000 contribution to their charitable initiatives during the National Restaurant Association’s 2011 Public Affairs Conference in Washington, D.C. American Express is the founding partner of the Restaurant Neighbor award.

“Through charitable gifts of food, time, and resources, restaurants have a tangible and lasting impact on their communities; we hope these actions inspire others to do the same,” says Curtis L. Wilson, vice president and general manager, restaurant and lodging industries, American Express.

The winners of the 2011 Restaurant Neighbor award are:

Large Business: Eat’n Park Hospitality Group, Pittsburgh: With its restaurants widely known as the “Place for Smiles,” this family-dining chain has, since 1979, devoted itself to fundraising for children’s hospitals in the communities it serves. Through its Caring for Kids program—a company-wide charitable effort consisting of fundraising events like raffles and donations—Eat’n Park has raised more than $7 million. The money helps defray the costs of medical care and also provides funds to help the partner hospitals, like the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, expand their reach.

Mid-size Business: Charleston Feed The Need, Charleston, South Carolina: Under the direction of Mickey Bakst, general manager of the Charleston Grill, this coalition of 52 area restaurants takes turns feeding those in need once a week at four local nonprofit agencies: the Tri-County Family Ministries, Crisis Ministries, East Cooper Meals on Wheels and Neighborhood House. The program, which began in 2009, fed more than 200,000 people in its first year. Bakst said that figure grew by 10 percent to 15 percent in 2010. Bakst says he is determined to turn the program into a national initiative to help feed the hungry.

Small Business: Kona Kai Coffee Company, Kent, Washington: Through the Halo Network Foundation, this gourmet coffee shop has become a real lifeline to many homeless and disenfranchised individuals who are trying to change their lives and re-enter the workforce.

The establishment offers a six- to eight-week program that teaches on-the-job training in espresso making, foodservice and such life skills as leadership, responsibility, and how to work with a team. At the end of the program, the company assists participants in finding employment. Kona Kai so far has raised about $13,000 to help the program’s operating costs, which is supported through private donations and various fundraisers.

Cornerstone Humanitarian: Michael Whalen, president and chief executive, Heart of America Restaurants, Moline, Iowa: As a boy growing up in Davenport, Iowa, Mike Whalen led a kind of “Leave it to Beaver” existence, unaware that lots of kids were not as lucky as he and lived in need.

His epiphany came in adulthood when he was invited, as a prospective sponsor, to tour the Rawhide Boys Ranch in New London, Wisconsin. During the tour, he realized how integral the ranch was to changing the lives of at-risk children and decided to open his own establishment that would help youngsters personally and professionally.

Whalen launched the Wildwood Hills Ranch camp facility in 2001. Since then the ranch has welcomed 8,000 children.

The National Restaurant Association and American Express developed the Restaurant Neighbor award program in 1999 in an effort to raise awareness of the industry’s contributions to local communities throughout the country and to inspire more owners and operators to get involved and contribute to their respective neighborhoods. Participating state restaurant associations select local winners and then nominate them to compete for the national award.

Industry News, Philanthropy