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Inspiring Operators Remind Us Why We Love the Restaurant Business

March 9, 2020

Original content c/o: National Restaurant Association

The stories behind this year’s Ambassador of Hospitality, Restaurant Neighbor and Faces of Diversity award winners are worth hearing and sharing.

An Iranian immigrant who ended up a successful Taco Bell franchisee, a Mexican chef-restaurateur who this year received his first James Beard Award nomination, and an eight-unit deli chain committed to reducing food waste were among the honorees at the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s 2020 Restaurant Industry Awards in Washington, DC.

The Restaurant NeighborFaces of Diversity and Thad and Alice Eure Ambassador of Hospitalityawards ceremony, held in March during the Association’s annual Public Affairs Conference, honored the lives and work of seven industry members who have overcome intense challenges, found business success and are paying it forward with charitable service, philanthropy, and inclusion and mentorship to others in need.

The Foundation presented $10,000 to each Restaurant Neighbor award winner to support his or her favorite charity or community project. It also awarded a $2,500 scholarship to ProStart students on behalf of each Faces of Diversity winner.

The 2020 Restaurant Neighbor Award winners

The team from Nick & Jake's, a Restaurant Neighbor Award winner, with members of the Kansas and Missouri delegations

  • Nick & Jake’s, Overland Park, KS, recognized for its work in addressing the issue of mental health and suicide prevention. Owner Kevin Timmons created “Nick’s Voice”, a school-based mental-health initiative, in honor of his son, who took his own life. The restaurant also helped to create a mental health curriculum in local school districts, donating 10% of sales to the school system for teacher grants. Over the last 11 years, the restaurant has raised more than $3 million to support other health initiatives in Overland Park.
  • Elephants Delicatessen, Portland, OR, honored for how it sources food locally, its efforts to reach zero-waste, and for donating food to those in need. The chain became a Certified B Corporation in 2015, a designation for businesses that meet the highest standards of social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability. B Lab, a nonprofit organization that measures a company’s social and environmental performance, issued the certification.
  • The Taco Bell Foundation, through its Live Mas Scholarship program, has awarded more than $10 million in scholarships to 893 students and $19 million in grants to youth groups.

The 2020 Faces of Diversity Award winners

This year's Faces of Diversity winners, from left: Farzin Ferdowsi, Austina Smith and Fernando Olea

  • Fernando Olea, who immigrated from Mexico to the US in 1982 to become an independent restaurateur in Santa Fe, NM, is a former chairman of the New Mexico Restaurant Association. He also created Sante Fe’s “Cooking with Kids” program and is active in the Foundation’s ProStart program. Olea, nominated this year as a James Beard Award “Best Chef” semifinalist for his restaurant, Sazon, called America the “land of opportunity,” saying that he came here with just $100 in his pocket.
  • Farzin Ferdowsi left Iran in 1965 to attend college in the US and today is one of Yum! Brands’ top 200 franchisees. Based in Brentwood, TN, Ferdowsi is committed to helping others achieve success. “The American Dream is alive and well,” he says.
  • Austina Smith escaped civil war in Sierra Leone, Africa, in 1990. Today, she is executive chef at Grand Living at Bridgewater, a retirement community in Coralville, Iowa. While studying accounting at college, she took a cake decorating class for fun and fell in love with the culinary arts. Smith, an esophageal cancer survivor, was overjoyed when emcee Tommy McFly told her the awards ceremony was being live-streamed to the retirement center so residents could watch her receive her award.

The 2020 Ambassador of Hospitality

The 2020 Ambassador of Hospitality, Phil Hickey, addresses guests during the Restaurant Industry Awards program

Phil Hickey, current chairman of Miller’s Ale House and former chairman of RARE Hospitality, parent of the LongHorn Steakhouse and the Capital Grille chains, was honored for his lifelong commitment to elevating and advancing the restaurant industry.

Hickey congratulated the evening’s winners, saying, “You are all out there changing the world. There is a core belief we all share: What we do matters. We can change our communities. We can change our country. We can change the world.”

He asked everyone in the audience to think of at least one person in their lives who told them they were special, that they could be great someday.

“I call that the spark,” he said. “I want you to remember the person who created that spark [in you] and then ask, ‘For whom are you the spark?’ ”

American ExpressPepsiCo Foodservice, and Ecolab are the official sponsors of the Restaurant Industry Awards.