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National Restaurant Association - Diversity award honors climb to success, restaurateur says

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Diversity award honors climb to success, restaurateur says

For many, the restaurant industry can provide the gateway to professional success through hard work and perseverance.

Bahjat Shariff, a 28-year industry veteran, has prospered from his association with the restaurant business.

Shariff was born in Lebanon, but after the outbreak of civil war in his country, he immigrated to the United States in 1984. With just $300 in his pocket and little command of the English language, he took a part-time job at a KFC restaurant in Rhode Island, saved his money, and went to school. He was the manager of seven stores by the time he was 23. Nearly 30 years later, he is senior vice president of operations and operating partner for Howley Bread Group, a Panera Bread franchisee in Cumberland, R.I. He also serves as director of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association Educational Foundation and is a member of the National Restaurant Association’s board of directors.

While he acknowledges the struggles it took to succeed, Shariff says one of the greatest thrills he’s experienced in his career to date was winning the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s Faces of Diversity/American Dream award in 2012.

“Receiving this award was very touching and emotional,” he said. “Honestly, you just plug away every day in life and in your career and forget all of the things you’ve done [to succeed]. This award celebrated the things in my life, the things I worked very hard for, and all of the people who came along with me, during 28 years in the restaurant business.”

The awards program, founded in 2006 in partnership with PepsiCo Foodservice, honors individuals from diverse backgrounds who have succeeded in realizing their own versions of the American Dream. A panel of industry leaders selects the finalists and winners, who are recognized annually at a gala dinner during the NRA’s Public Affairs Conference, which will next be held April 29 in Washington, D.C. In addition, the NRAEF presents $2,500 scholarships on behalf of the winners to students pursuing careers in the restaurant and hospitality industry.

“PepsiCo Foodservice is excited to help recognize individuals who have worked tirelessly to achieve their dreams of business ownership and success,” said Doug Allison, the company’s vice president of industry relations. “They are not only true entrepreneurs, but also serve as role models for those who soon will become the future of the restaurant industry.”

Rob Gifford, the NRAEF’s executive vice president of philanthropic initiatives, said the restaurant and foodservice industry is one of the most diverse in the United States.

“This industry employs more minority managers than any other industry, and women represent 55 percent of the restaurant workforce,” he noted. “In addition, more than one-quarter of all foodservice managers are foreign-born. We hope to inspire further inclusion by honoring those individuals and raise awareness about the important role restaurants play in providing a ladder up for millions of Americans to achieve their dreams.”

2012 winner Shariff says not a single day passes that he doesn’t think of the day he won his award.

“Being recognized by the industry is a wonderful feeling,” he said. “This was so flattering, and there is a very nice vase [recognizing the Diversity award] sitting in my office that I look at every day. Not only that, my 6-year-old goes on YouTube and, I’m not exaggerating, watches the video [of the award presentation] every day.”

He says the best part about receiving the award has been the recognition he’s received from other restaurateurs and from operators of businesses throughout his state.

“You know, overnight you become the mayor of your state,” he said. “I got so many e-mails and letters of congratulations. And then the Rhode Island Hospitality Association Education Foundation asked me to be on their board and somehow I got to be on the NRA board. Big doors keep opening and I think it’s because of this [award].”

Learn more about the Faces of Diversity/American Dream award program here. The deadline to apply for the award is Nov. 18.

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