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National Restaurant Association - Remembering Matt Haley

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Remembering Matt Haley

The restaurant community mourns the loss of humanitarian and entrepreneur Matt Haley. Haley, who owned eight restaurants in Delaware, died Tuesday after a motorcycle accident in India.

Haley died as he lived, giving back through community service. He was traveling through Northern India and Nepal on a six-week humanitarian mission. "He touched the lives of many people in his beloved state of Delaware and across the globe through charity work,” NRA President and CEO Dawn Sweeney said.

“He had a real true desire and commitment to service,” said Carrie Leishman, president of the Delaware Restaurant Association. “His impact and loss will be felt in our small community in Delaware and across the world.”

Humanitarian work
Haley received the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s Cornerstone Humanitarian Award in April. It was one of three awards for philanthropic work that he received this year. He also was named the James Beard Foundation's Humanitarian of the Year and the International Association of Culinary Professional's National Humanitarian of the Year.

Haley received the Delaware Restaurant Association’s Cornerstone Award in 2012. The lifetime achievement award recognizes restaurateurs who dedicate their lives to humanitarian efforts.

Much of Haley’s philanthropic work is administered through the Global Delaware Fund, an organization he founded to support non-profit and charitable delegations in Delaware. Internationally, he financed schools, scholarships and an orphanage renovation in Nepal. He also worked with one of his chefs to launch an inoculation program for women.

Second chances
Haley, who employed 1,000 people through restaurants, catering and other businesses, frequently shared his story and passion for the industry with students, community service groups and restaurateurs. Once, he agreed to speak to a DRA intern’s class, Leishman said. He believed everyone deserved a second chance, and he was thankful the restaurant industry gave him his second chance.

“It was part of where he came from,” she says. “That second chance fueled his passion to give back.”

Haley grew up with an abusive father and lashed out through anger, alcohol, drugs and reckless behavior. “I was a bad kid,” he recently told the NRA. “I went the route of being involved in a lot of illegal behavior.”

When he was busted, he considered it an intervention. “They locked me up, and I started to turn my life around,” he told  Delaware-based Coastal Style magazine in July.

After serving four years in prison, Haley entered a vocational program and learned how to cook. He also learned the value of hard work and loyalty, which is why he said he was committed to ensuring opportunities for his employees.

“After I got in trouble and wound up in the penitentiary … the only industry that was there for me was the restaurant industry,” Haley said in April at an NRA awards gala. “There was no other industry. I had a group of people surround me who taught me that I could love what I did.”

The company that gave Haley his second chance was a catering company. He washed dishes, cut vegetables and performed other routine tasks. He was 34 years old.

“My first chef was patient with me and took the time to educate me,” Haley said at the NRA awards ceremony. “I got to go to work every day in a safe environment, and I’m forever grateful for that. I’m very grateful for the people who helped save my life.”

Haley described that chef, Mike Congrove, to Coastal Magazine as a kind, nurturing man who gave him the opportunity to learn, gain experience and develop self-confidence.

“There are great examples of phenomenal people in my life,” he said at the awards ceremony.  “If I didn’t have those examples … those people, who stuck by me and loved me until I could learn to love myself … they taught me about compassion and that’s a fantastic thing.”

New beginnings
After a few years at the catering company, Haley opened a sandwich shop in Bethesda, Md., that served paninis and salads. From there, he managed a friend’s restaurant in Delaware for two seasons and then bought a run-down property that became the first of eight restaurants operating under the Matt Haley Companies umbrella.

The beginning was rough, from serving just 27 dinners on opening night, to off-season struggles. His business grew with his reputation for quality food and service, but then the economy faltered.  He recalled one of his proudest achievements as not laying off anyone during the recession.

“I was willing to sacrifice everything I had to not lay anyone off, and we became one of the five fastest-growing food and beverage organizations in the middle of the recession.”

Industry champion
“The restaurant industry lost a giant,” NRA CEO Sweeney said. “Matt was a champion for our industry and a shining example the humanitarian spirit. He overcame all odds to become one of America’s most successful restaurateurs and philanthropists.”

Many people in the restaurant industry give back to the community, but Haley took it to another level, Leishman said. His experiences drove him to understand human suffering and touch the lives of people in real need, from prisoners serving time to orphans in Nepal.

“If there's one positive message that comes from this tragic loss, it’s this: If we give someone a second chance, they can succeed and pay it forward,” Leishman said. “Someone did that for Matt, and because of that, he made all of us very proud. That's the message he would want shared.”

Xavier Teixido, owner of Wilmington, Del.-based Harry’s Hospitality Group, said Haley saw no limits and no barriers to those he could help.

“He was an unusually giving person who was beginning a new chapter in his life. Given the platform he had from the James Beard community, it would have been interesting to see what would have become of it – or will become of it because of his legacy.”





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