Restaurants Across the Country Celebrated for Diversity and Inclusion, Community Service and Leadership

WASHINGTON, DC – March 5th, 2020 – Today, the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF) announced its national winners for the 2020 Restaurant Industry Awards, celebrating diversity and inclusion, community service and leadership in the restaurant industry.

The NRAEF honored the winners during a special VIP dinner in Washington, D.C., where each winner shared their story of overcoming personal challenges and giving back to the community.

“We’re proud of the incredible stories we can tell each year through our Restaurant Industry Awards – stories of those reflect the inclusiveness and generosity of the hospitality industry,” said Rob Gifford, president of the NRAEF. “The Foundation is thrilled and honored to recognize the people and the businesses that demonstrate why the restaurant industry is full of limitless opportunity.”



Restaurant Neighbor Award (RNA) Winners
The Restaurant Neighbor Award, developed in partnership with American Express, highlights outstanding local and national charitable service and philanthropy. RNA winners receive a $10,000 contribution in their name to support the charitable organization or program of their choice. 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 died of 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, Kansas, including the Children’s Hospital. Watch the video here.
  • Elephants Delicatessen, Portland, Oregon – Elephants Delicatessen is a 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 their 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. Watch the video here.
  • Taco Bell Foundation, Nationwide – The Taco Bell Foundation supports education through the Live Más Scholarship program, which started in 2016. In that time, the Foundation has awarded over $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. Watch the video here.

Faces of Diversity (FOD) Award Winners
The Faces of Diversity award, sponsored by PepsiCo Foodservice, 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, New Mexico, 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. Watch the video here.
  • Farzin Ferdowsi – Ferdowsi is a Taco Bell franchisee based in Tennessee who immigrated to the United States in 1965. He planned to return to Iran, but the revolution broke out in 1979. 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. Watch the video here.
  • Austina Smith – After escaping Sierra Leone in 1990 during the start of the 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 a retirement community in Iowa 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. Watch the video here.

Thad and Alice Eure Ambassador of Hospitality Award (AOH)
In honor of Thad and Alice Eure, the Ambassador of Hospitality Award, sponsored by Ecolab, is bestowed upon an industry leader who displays an unwavering commitment to elevating and advancing the restaurant and foodservice industry. This year’s winner is Phil Hickey, Chairman of Miller’s Ale House.

Spanning a 46-year career in the industry, Hickey’s story starts at a dish washing station at Michigan State University (MSU), where he held his very first job while studying at MSU. By the age of 25, he 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, then 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. Watch the video here.

For more information on each winner, including images and videos, visit


About the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation
As the philanthropic foundation of the National Restaurant Association, the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s mission of service to the public is dedicated to enhancing the industry’s training and education, career development and community engagement efforts.

The NRAEF and its programs work to Attract, Empower and Advance today’s and tomorrow’s restaurant and foodservice workforce. NRAEF programs include:

  • ProStart® – a high-school career and technical education program

  • Restaurant Ready – partnering with community-based organizations to provide “opportunity youth” and justice-involved individuals with skills training and job opportunities

  • Military – helping military servicemen and women transition their skills to restaurant and foodservice careers

  • Scholarships – financial assistance for students pursuing restaurant, foodservice and hospitality degrees

  • Hospitality Sector Registered Apprenticeship project – a partnership with the American Hotel & Lodging Association providing a hospitality apprenticeship program for the industry

For more information on the NRAEF, visit

Jasmine Jones

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