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Industry Professionals Share Stories for Black History Month

January 31, 2020

Original content c/o: National Restaurant Association

National Restaurant Association is celebrating Black History Month by talking with restaurant executives, none of whom knew that great careers awaited them in our industry.

Each February, America celebrates Black History Month. During the month, National Restaurant Association honors the contributions of African-Americans who have helped shape and change our country and its businesses.

The National Restaurant Association is highlighting the achievements of five execs – Pizza Ranch’s Sean Landrum, Brinker International’s Towanda Bryant, Touchstone Hospitality’s Robert E. Lee III, Darden’s Akenya Colbert-Melendez, and IHOP franchisee Adenah Bayoh.

Sean Landrum, Culinary Research and Development Director
Pizza Ranch | Orange City, Iowa

“I had zero plans when I was in college. I got my start in the restaurant industry as a dishwasher at a neighborhood bar & grill. I was always a team guy – played team sports – so as soon as I got in, I became part of that team and fell in love with it, all of it. As soon as I graduated, they promoted me to assistant manager, then general manager and, eventually regional manager. More than anything, it was that passion and love for the team environment of this industry that really sparked my interest. As a kid, I never really knew much about restaurants. Food was a vital part of our family life, but we only ate out occasionally. It wasn’t until I started working at the restaurant that I realized I could make money and have a professional life in this industry. This industry can give you a real freedom of expression and individualism, along with a feeling of belonging to something greater than yourself. If you’re willing to do the work, it will pay off for you.”

Towanda Bryant, Senior Category Manager
Brinker International | Dallas, Texas

“I think I always had an interest in the restaurant industry, even as far back as when I was in middle school. I always read the popular magazines – Better Homes & Gardens and Southern Living – that featured beautiful food presentations that inspired me. The recipes and combinations of ingredients intrigued me. When I got to Mississippi State, I started working at a nearby Pizza Hut. It was hot, sweaty work, but fun. And I loved the team; there was so much camaraderie. After graduating, with business degree in hand, I started working in supply chain. I learned a lot fast. There were some trials by fire, but I built on and leveraged those experiences into the career I have today. My advice to young people considering careers in this field? Be inquisitive about where our food comes from. Travel, if you have the opportunity, to learn and experience different food cultures, and work in a restaurant to understand management and operations. A lot goes into getting the food that ends up on the customer’s plate. Each step in the process has to be carefully considered and the details are critical in delivering the best experience possible.”

Robert E. Lee III, Founder & President
Touchstone Hospitality LLC | Columbus, Ohio

“I’ve always had a passion for the hospitality industry. I grew up in a middle-class family in Detroit, and worked because I wanted to, not because I had to. I’ve worked in hospitality since I was 18 years old – in  hotels, clubs and restaurants – and have been very fortunate. Through the Airport Concessions Disadvantaged Business Enterprise, which offers women and minorities ownership opportunities in the concessions space, I now operate two Donatos Pizza restaurants at John Glenn International Airport in Columbus. But it’s the people part of the business that I really love, helping employees grow their careers. In my organization, many young people have come to us for jobs and ended up developing careers. I think that happens more often in the restaurant and hospitality industry than it does in any other.”

Akenya Colbert-Melendez, Associate Manager, Nutrition & Allergen, Culinary Operations
Darden Restaurants, Orlando, Fla.

“When I was in college, I thought I’d end up working for a food company, in R&D or teaching people how to cook food that met their dietary needs. Studying nutrition and food science, most of the career opportunities were either in clinical foodservice or food production, not really restaurants. After getting my bachelor’s degree, I went to work as a pastry chef at a fine-dining restaurant and loved it. A few years later, a Darden recruiter reached out to me and seven years later, I’m still – happily – with the company. I love that I can wear my nutrition science and culinary hats every day. Everything I do impacts our guests directly, and there’s something very humbling about that. Yes, there are some challenges: the regulatory landscape is constantly changing, but the key is to stay knowledgeable and adaptable.”

Adenah Bayoh, Founder & CEO
Adenah Bayoh and Companies | 
Irvington, New Jersey

“From an early age, I knew I’d do something where I’d be working with people. I love people, love being around them. To me, that is what the restaurant industry represents. We look at restaurants as places that serve food, but when you really break it down, they’re about the human experience. That is what draws me to them. Yes, it’s about the food, but, really, it’s about how we connect with each other over that food. My grandmother – my inspiration – always saw I was a people person. Whenever the opportunity arose, she put me up front to interact with them, and always said I had what it took to run my own business. That’s what I look for in my own employees, that ability to make a human connection with others. I can teach a lot of things, but I can’t teach how to smile or extend kindness. That comes from within.”

Learn more about diversity and inclusion in the restaurant industry at the Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance.