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NRAEF Awards Celebrate Diversity, Inclusion, Leadership and More

The National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation recognized four individuals and three organization’s for their accomplishments and contributions in the areas of diversity and inclusion, community service and leadership with its 2020 Restaurant Industry Awards.

The Restaurant Neighbor Award highlights outstanding local and national charitable service and philanthropy. This year's winners include:

  • Nick & Jake's, Overland Park, Kansas: Nick and Jake's is a small business with a big heart, dedicated to addressing a crucial issue: mental health and suicide prevention. Owner Kevin Timmons created “Nick's Voice,” a school-based psychiatric mental health initiative in honor of his son who committed suicide. The restaurant helped create a mental health curriculum in local school districts, donating 10 percent of sales to the school system for teacher grants. In 11 years, the restaurant has raised more than $3 million to support other health initiatives in Overland Park, Kan., including the Children's Hospital.
  • Elephants Delicatessen, Portland, Ore.: Elephants Delicatessen is an eight-unit restaurant chain dedicated to sustainability, managing food waste and supporting local nonprofits with daily donations and volunteering. The company donates approximately 95 percent of its leftover fresh food items. Elephants Deli became a Certified B Corporation in 2015, a designation for businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability. There are only 3,243 Certified B Corporations around the world. Elephants Delicatessen was honored in 2018 and 2019 with a B Corp “Best for the World” Changemakers award for their continuous improvement in and dedication to community service, environmental protection, and employee well-being.
  • Taco Bell Foundation, Nationwide: The Taco Bell Foundation supports education through the Live Más Scholarship program, which started in 2016. In that time, the Taco Bell Foundation has awarded more than $10 million in scholarships to 893 students and $19 million in grants to youth groups. Customers can also donate to the funds. Judges were especially impressed with their restaurant employee scholarship program to support their employees and the restaurant industry at-large.

The Faces of Diversity award honors champions of diversity and inclusion and restaurateurs who have achieved the American Dream. This year's winners include:

  • Fernando Olea: An independent operator in Santa Fe, N.M., Olea immigrated to the United States in 1982, starting at an entry-level restaurant job to learn English. He advanced his career by opening two restaurants in 1991 when he also became an American citizen. A former chair of the New Mexico Restaurant Association, Olea was recognized by First Lady Michelle Obama for his Cooking with Kids program, dedicated to children. He regularly visits schools in predominantly Hispanic communities to talk with students about two of the most essential jobs in any restaurant: dishwashers and busboys. Last week, Olea was selected as a semifinalist for the James Beard Awards under the category Best Chef Southwest.
  • Farzin Ferdowsi: Ferdowsi is a Tennessee-based Taco Bell franchisee who fled the Iran Revolution in 1965 and immigrated to the United States. After Ferdowsi's father was killed, his remaining family was smuggled out of the country. Ferdowsi was left to become head of the family and chose to work as a crew member at Pizza Hut, eventually going on to open his first franchise. He is now ranked 126 of the top 200 franchisees, serves on the Taco Bell Foundation board and remains actively involved in his community.
  • Austina Smith: After escaping Sierra Leone in 1990 during the start of a civil war, Austina Smith immigrated to the United States. Smith got her start washing dishes in her grandmother's restaurant, then went on to receive a degree in culinary and restaurant management and work as a sous chef at Cornell College. In 2016, Smith was diagnosed with esophagus cancer and unfortunately needed to have her esophagus removed, which forced her to re-learn the taste of food. Despite the challenge, Smith would go on to become executive chef at an Iowa retirement community and pay special attention to the dietary needs and food allergies of every single resident. Smith also volunteers as a culinary instructor in her free time.

Phil Hickey, chairman of Miller’s Ale House, is the recipient of the Ambassador of Hospitality Award. Named in in honor of Thad and Alice Eure, this award recognizes an industry leader who displays an unwavering commitment to elevating and advancing the restaurant and foodservice industry.

Spanning a 46-year career in the industry, Hickey broke into the foodservice industry at a Michigan State University dishwashing station while in college. By the age of 25, Hickey was running 10 casual dining restaurants for Houlihan's. At 29, he co-founded the Cooker Bar & Grille concept, and as president, helped take the company public five years later. Hickey also served as president and chief operating officer of Innovative Restaurant Concepts and Rio Bravo International as well as chief executive officer of RARE Hospitality (LongHorn Steakhouse and The Capital Grille) for 10 years. He co-founded the Georgia Restaurant Association and has served as chair of the National Restaurant Association. Today, Hickey is chair of Miller's Ale House restaurants and continues to give back by advocating for young people, visiting ProStart classrooms and sharing his wisdom.