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National Restaurant Association - Restaurateur's influence remains 50 years later

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Restaurateur's influence remains 50 years later

Two months before the March of Washington, an Atlanta restaurateur advanced the cause of civil rights when he opened his fine-dining restaurant to guests of all races.

Herren's Restaurant, known for its seafood and sweet rolls, drew the Who's Who of Atlanta to its prime spot on Luckie Street, then the city's restaurant row.

In June 1963, owner Ed Negri invited surgeon Lee Shelton, his wife Delores and her mother to join dine among the powerbrokers, celebrities and other elite Atlantans. As the landmark restaurant's first African American guests, they would help Negri become the city's first restaurateur to voluntarily degregrate his operation.

"Great leaders always focuse on doing the right thing, which is not always easy," former National Restaurant Association Chairman Regynald Washington said at tribute to the event. "Ed Negri was a stellar example of solid leadership. He knew that desegregation was the right thing to do, but would would result in difficult consequences for a period of time.

During the first year of Herren's integration, the Ku Klux Klan picketed the restaurant. Negri received bomb threats and lost $30,000 in sales.

But he didn't waiver and moved forward with his desegration plan, said Washington, noting that leadership requires courage, focus and consistency.

"It was leaders like Ed Negri, Martin Luther King Jr, Congressman John Lewis and many others who opened the doors and made it possible for equality for people like me in the restaurant and foodservice industry," said Washington, chief operating officer, Hojeij Branded Foods. "Ed's desegragation formula was one of the cornerstones of the integration in Atlanta's restaurant industry and obviously influenced the spirit of integration in other restaurant operations throughout the South."

Washington noted the industry's progress in creating career opportunities for women and people of color over the past 50 years.

Today, restaurants employ more minority managers than any other industry. Fifty-nine percent of first-line supervisors of food  preparation and service employees are female, 18 percent are black or African American and 15 percent are Hispanic. The number of black or African American-owned restaurants increased 188 percent between 1997 and 2007. In the same period, the number of Hispanic-owned restaurants grew 80 percent, and the number of Asian-owned restaurants rose 60 percent.

"Thanks to Ed, who was instrumental in building the strong foundation for this thriving multi-million dollar restaurant industry ... I am honored to be part of this fabulous industry," Washington said. "I have been working in the foodservice industry for over 30 years -- and I must add -- with tremendous success in my career."

Negri continued to be a pioneer in the industry after integrating Herren's, which his father bought from the original owner in 1934. The family owned the restaurant until 1987, and Negri died earlier this year.

"Ed went out on a limb and was truly a pioneer," said Josh Grotheer, a spokesman for the Georgia State University's Cecil B. Day School of Hospitality Administration, which hosted the June 25 event with the Georgia Restaurant Association. "He wanted to do what was right for the city, the time and the industry."

The "Evening at Herren's" tribute featured a reception and question-and-answer session with the Sheltons. Hospitality students served appetizers based on Herren's most popular dishes: Seafood Newburgh, Shrimp Arnaud, lemon icebox pie and cinnamon sweet rolls. Proceeds benefitted the hospitality school. The tribute took place at the Balzer Theater, which is housed in the former Herren's building.

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