Restaurateurs celebrate NRA Faces of Diversity award winners

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The National Restaurant Association recognized three restaurateurs — who each overcame significant odds to become successful entrepreneurs — with the 2012 Faces of Diversity American Dream awards during a gala dinner Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

The NRA said the award honors members of the restaurant community who have “achieved the American Dream of entrepreneurship.”

This year’s three honorees are:

Jorge Levy
Desperados Mexican Restaurant in Dallas

When he was 16 years old, Levy moved with his family from Mexico to the United States, where he learned English and began working in restaurants. After a stint in the military, he pursued the dream of owning his own restaurant. Today, Levy’s 36-year-old Desperados is a popular fixture on the Dallas restaurant scene.

See Levy’s story; story continues below

Bahjat Shariff
Panera Bread/Howley Bread Group in Cumberland, R.I.

At 18, Shariff emigrated from Lebanon to the United States, where he took a job with KFC. During his 10 years with the chain, he worked his way up from part-time cook to market manager. After working for several other brands, Shariff launched Howley Bread Group, which today generates the fourth-highest volume among all Panera Bread franchisees.

See Shariff’s story; story continues below

Leah Chase
Dooky Chase Restaurant in New Orleans

The widely recognized Chase is known not only for being the “Queen of Creole Cuisine,” but also for her work in the Civil Rights movement and as a promoter of African-American art. Chase began working in her husband’s restaurant in 1945, eventually transforming the menu to reflect her Creole heritage. At 89 years old she still runs the kitchen at Dooky Chase Restaurant.

See Chase’s story; story continues below

“This is unbelievable,” Chase said as she accepted her award to a standing ovation. “I started as a waitress and I had never even seen the inside of a restaurant.”

Chase has long been a fixture with the New Orleans dining scene, as her restaurant morphed from a gathering place during the Civil Rights movement to a meeting place for today’s politicians. She said her struggles — both for equal rights and through natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina — helped her understand what is most important.

“”Diversity is what we all ought to be about,” she said. “Working together to make a difference … we have to be able to talk with one another, we have to be able to say what we want to one another, we have to talk and get along.”

She applauded the restaurant industry as a place where anyone can develop a successful career.

“It’s good to see the industry grow,” she said. “It can take you from a dishwasher to wherever you want to go.”

Dawn Sweeney, the NRA’s president and chief executive, said, “The winners of our 2012 Faces of Diversity American Dream awards truly embody the entrepreneurial spirit that represents our industry.

“The restaurant industry is one of the most diverse industries in the United States that provides opportunities for individuals of all backgrounds to realize their dreams of business ownership through hard work and dedication,” she added. “We are proud to celebrate these restaurateurs’ achievements.”

In addition to receiving the award, the NRA presents a $2,500 scholarship to a student in the recipients’ honor.

PepsiCo Foodservice is a partner with the NRA in the Faces of Diversity awards program. The winners are selected by a group of restaurant industry insiders and supporters, including a representative from Nation’s Restaurant News.

Sarah Lockyer contributed to this article.

Contact Paul Frumkin at paul.frumkin@penton.com.