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National Restaurant Association - Restaurant Neighbor Award winners committed to community service

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Restaurant Neighbor Award winners committed to community service


Three restaurant companies and an industry leader today receive $5,000 to continue their community service through the National Restaurant Association's Restaurant Neighbor Award.

The award celebrates outstanding community service efforts by small, medium and large restaurants, as well as a Cornerstone Humanitarian.

This year’s winners are Eat’n Park Hospitality Group, the Pittsburgh-based parent of the Eat’n Park restaurant chain, large business; Charleston Chefs Feed The Need, a consortium of 52 Charleston, S.C.-based restaurants, mid-size business; and Kona Kai Coffee Co., a gourmet coffee shop in Kent, Wash., small business.

Michael Whalen, president and chief executive of Moline, Iowa-based Heart of America Restaurants, is this year’s Cornerstone Humanitarian.

“The restaurant industry first and foremost is about hospitality and serving people, and community service is a natural extension of that,” NRA President and CEO Dawn Sweeney said. “We are pleased to present the Restaurant Neighbor Award to some of the most inspiring examples of philanthropy in our industry. Their dedicated efforts have helped improve the lives of many and embody our mission to enhance the quality of life for all we serve.”

The winners each receive the award and a $5,000 contribution to their charitable initiatives tonight at the National Restaurant Association’s Public Affairs Conference in Washington, D.C.

The winners of the 2011 Restaurant Neighbor award are:

Eat’n Park Hospitality Group: With its restaurants widely known as the “Place for Smiles,” this family-dining chain has devoted itself to fundraising for children’s hospitals in the communities it serves since 1979. Through its Caring for Kids program — a company-wide effort raffles, donations  and other events — Eat’n Park has raised more than $7 million. The money helps defray the cost of medical care and provides money to help partner hospitals, such as Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, expand their reach.

Charleston Chefs Feed The Need: Under the direction of Mickey Bakst, general manager of the Charleston Grill, this coalition takes turns feeding those in need once a week at four nonprofit agencies: the Tri-County Family Ministries, Crisis Ministries, East Cooper Meals on Wheels and Neighborhood House. The program, which began in 2009, fed more than 200,000 people in its first year. Bakst said that figure grew 10 percent to 15 percent in 2010. Bakst says he is determined to turn the program into a national initiative to help feed the hungry.

• Kona Kai Coffee: Through the Halo Network Foundation, this gourmet coffee shop has become a real lifeline to many homeless and disenfranchised people who are trying to change their lives and re-enter the workforce. The establishment offers a six- to eight-week program that teaches on-the-job training in espresso making and foodservice. It also offers life skills classes in leadership, responsibility and teamwork. At the end of the program, the company helps participants find jobs. Kona Kai has raised about $13,000 to help the program’s operating costs, which are supported through private donations and fundraisers.

• Michael Whalen: As a boy in Davenport, Iowa, Whalen led a kind of “Leave it to Beaver” existence, unaware that lots of kids weren't as lucky as he. His epiphany came in adulthood when he was invited, as a prospective sponsor, to tour the Rawhide Boys Ranch in New London, Wis. During the tour, he realized how integral the ranch was to changing the lives of at-risk children and decided to open an establishment to help youngsters personally and professionally. Whalen launched the Wildwood Hills Ranch camp facility in 2001. Since then, the ranch has welcomed 8,000 children.

The NRA and American Express developed the Restaurant Neighbor Award program in 1999 to raise awareness of the industry’s contributions to local communities and inspire more owners and operators to get involved. Participating state restaurant associations select local winners and nominate them to compete for the national award.

“American Express is proud to partner with the National Restaurant Association to honor the contributions restaurateurs across the country make to their communities,” said Curtis L. Wilson, vice president and general manager, Restaurant and Lodging Industries, American Express. “Through charitable gifts of food, time and resources, restaurants have a tangible and lasting impact on their communities; we hope these actions inspire others to do the same.”

Watch a video of the winners' community service projects:


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