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National Restaurant Association - Restaurant Neighbor, Diversity award winners honored by NRA

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Restaurant Neighbor, Diversity award winners honored by NRA

The National Restaurant Association honored its 2012 Restaurant Neighbor and Faces of Diversity American Dream award winners at an April 17 gala during its Public Affairs Conference in Washington, D.C.

The Restaurant Neighbor Award celebrated the outstanding charitable service performed by four foodservice companies and the Faces of Diversity American Dream award was given to three diverse members of the restaurant industry who have, through hard work and perseverance, achieved business successes.

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This year's Restaurant Neighbor award winners were Aramark Corp., the Philadelphia-based contract foodservice company, in the large business category; New Orleans' Taste Buds Management in the mid-sized category; and Damariscotta, Maine-based King Eider's Pub in the small business category. This year's Cornerstone Humanitarian award went to the late Noel Cunningham and his wife, Tammy, owners of Strings restaurant in Denver. Each recipient received a $5,000 contribution to support their charitable initiatives.

"The recipients of this year's Restaurant Neighbor award embody our mission to enhance the quality of life for all we serve," said Dawn Sweeney, the NRA's president and CEO. "We are proud to recognize the incredible efforts of this year's winners, whose generosity and commitment to bettering their communities has touched the lives of countless individuals. Their stories exemplify the restaurant industry's dedication to community service."

Aramark was recognized for its Building Community initiative, which provides funds, volunteers, programs and professional services to community centers that aid low-income families throughout the United States. Since Aramark instituted the program in 2008, it has contributed more than $7 million and 15,000 employees have volunteered their time to the program. Taste Buds Management was honored for the help it provided to residents of Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Joplin, Mo., after back-to-back tornadoes hit both cities. King Eider's Pub received its award for creating the Community Energy Fund, which helps community members in need heat their homes and pay fuel costs for transportation.

The Cunninghams were recognized for their humanitarian efforts in aiding the impoverished people of Ethiopia. Noel Cunningham died in 2011; Tammy Cunningham accepted the award on the couple's behalf.

"His legacy is that he saw a bigger picture than himself and felt responsibility for that bigger picture," Tammy Cunningham said of her husband.  "Noel taught me how to give and love. Thank you for this beautiful honor," she tearfully told the gala's attendees. "I know Noel is beside me right now."

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This year's Faces of Diversity American Dream awards went to three restaurant entrepreneurs: Jorge Levy of Desperados Mexican restaurant in Dallas, Bahjat Shariff of the Panera Bread/Howley Bread Group in Cumberland, R.I., and Leah Chase, proprietor of the renowned Dooky Chase restaurant in New Orleans.

"The winners of our 2012 Faces of Diversity American Dream awards truly embody the entrepreneurial spirit that represents our industry," the NRA's Sweeney said. "The restaurant industry ... provides opportunities for individuals of all backgrounds to realize their dreams of business ownership through hard work and dedication. We are proud to celebrate these restaurateurs' achievements."

Levy, who started working at age seven to help his family survive after the death of his father, came to America at age 16. He learned English and worked in restaurants before joining the military. After his discharge, he opened Desperado's, which is now in its 36th year.

Shariff left war-torn Lebanon at the age of 18 to make his way in the United States. After working his way up the chain at KFC, he took an ownership position at Howley Bread Group, a Panera franchisee.

Chase, who began her foodservice career as a waitress in 1941, now is known as the "Queen of Creole Cuisine." The 89-year-old Chase, who turned her husband's family restaurant into the successful business it is today, was active during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and has been a long-time promoter of African American Art. Upon receiving her award, Chase said, "I am so grateful. If you knew where I came from ... to be here tonight, it's unbelievable."

Chase endeared the crowd with a rousing speech about diversity and inclusion, saying, "It's good to see people get along together, work together ... and make a difference. That is what I try to do, make a difference. When I started as a waitress in the [French] Quarter in 1941, this industry was not what it is today, but I did good. To see this industry grow ... this is the best industry in the world. It can take you from being a dishwasher to anything you want to be."

Chase noted that, "Diversity is what we all should be about. We all need to work together. You're not going to agree with everyone, but you have to be able to talk. We have to talk and have to get along."

The evening's festivities ended with the presentation of diversity scholarships to two National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation ProStart graduates. Sterling Taylor Reynolds of Naperville, Ill., and Jalisa Fleming of Suffolk, Va., received scholarships in the amount of $2,500 each.

The Restaurant Neighbor Awards program was developed in partnership with American Express and the Faces of Diversity American Dream awards program was created in partnership with PepsiCo Foodservice.

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