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National Restaurant Association - 'This is our American Dream'

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'This is our American Dream'


The National Restaurant Association's Public Affairs Conference opened Wednesday with cheers and tears.

"I am so choked up," Amporn Vasquez, executive chef, Pizza by Elizabeths, Greenville, Del., said as she accepted one of several awards for entrepreneurship and community service. "I want to thank this country, the United States of America, to give us the hope and the dream."

About 500 restaurateurs applauded Amporn, three other other Faces of Diversity award winners, four Restaurant Neighbor Award recipients and four college scholarship winners. The awards ceremony was part of the Association's 25th annual Public Affairs Conference.

Sisters Berekti and Akberet Mengistu, owners, Mesob restaurant, Montclair, N.J., received cheers when they said they were happy to be American and have the freedom to dream. "This is our American Dream," Berekti said.

The ceremony recognized diversity within the restaurant industry, as well as restaurateurs' contributions to their communities. Conference attendees are encourage to share the winners' stories, as well as their own, when they visit congressional offices Thursday on Capitol Hill.

"Talk to policymakers ... about what it is like to run a business," keynote speaker Rep. Charlie Gonzalez (D-Texas) said.

Gonzalez congratulated the winners and the attendees for overcoming obstacles to be successful in "one of the toughest businesses" in this country. He specifically thanked The Culinary Institute of America and Silver Ventures Inc., which won the Inspiration Award for "opening doors of opportunity" for many of his constituents in San Antonio.

CIA President Dr. Tim Ryan said the San Antonio branch of the CIA would ensure that Latino and Hispanic restaurant workers would be able to rise to leadership levels within the industry. The school offers full four-year scholarships to students of Latino descent.

"Education is the true equalizer," McDonald's franchisee Richard Castro, who won an American Dream award, noted.

After sharing her story about running the family farm and helping her restaurant-owner mother after her father died, keynote speaker Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D) said she understood the touch decisions and challenges restaurateurs face.

She also recognized the award winners, saying it was amazing to be among "those who excel." She said she frequently asked herself what she could to do make sure today's youth had the same opportunities she had.

Several of Association's Restaurant Neighbor Award national and state winners, including Cornerstone Humanitarian Mike Whalen, owner, Heart of America Restaurants, provide opportunities to help disadvantaged youth. But Whalen noted that many restaurateurs turn lives around by taking chances on at-risk youth.

"That's the restaurant industry," he said. "They have big hearts."

Mickey Bakst, general manager, Charleston (S.C.) Grill, said he was honored to accept his Restaurant Neighbor Award "in front of people who are part of the industry I have loved for 38 years ... an industry that taught me unconditionally that we are capable of making change."


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