Left to right: Doug Allison, Leah Chase, and Roz Mallet.

A Very Public Affair

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NRA's annual conference stirs emotions, raises awareness on the 'Hill'
May 2012 Legal

The National Restaurant Association’s 26th annual Public Affairs Conference had all the elements of an award-winning movie: drama, tears, and large doses of inspiration.

The main event featured more than 500 restaurateurs from 45 states descending on Capitol Hill in a full-throttle effort to bring the industry’s message to our nation’s legislators.

This year’s theme, America Works Here, is part of the NRA’s 2012 narrative, and it wasn’t wasted on scores of U.S. representatives and senators. They heard about it from prominent foodservice operators who had traveled to Washington on April 16-17 from their home states.

To help the restaurateurs get in a Washington “state of mind,” there were a few prominent speakers from both sides of Congress, including Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio; Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La.; Rep. Bobby Schilling, R-Ill.; and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.

While Boehner was addressing the group, servers and other restaurant workers from ROC United (Restaurant Opportunities Centers United), protested that the wage rate for tipped workers of $2.13 has not been raised since 1991 by singing and dancing in flash mob style right outside the ballroom, which added a dramatic element to the conference.

Taking the Hill with members of the Georgia Restaurant Association, including Karen I. Bremer, executive director, and Patrick Cuccaro, the executive director and chairman of the association, proved more than interesting. The group of operators from Atlanta and beyond came well prepared, imploring Georgia elected officials to support the industry’s stance on such legislation as a permanent 15-year depreciation schedule for restaurant improvements and construction, further reforms in the debit/credit card swipe-fee market, modifications to the health care law, and blockage of the National Labor Relations Board “ambush” election rule.

But the night before restaurateurs took their message of job creation and advocacy for pro-growth strategies to their elected officials, there was plenty of inspiration to ensure they went off with hearts full of pride.

At a gala dinner celebrating diversity and community, seven awards were bestowed, and most in the audience shed a tear or two when the recipients came to the stage after each video, which detailed their singular achievements.

Held at the Renaissance Downtown on April 17, the event featured four Restaurant Neighbor Awards, sponsored by American Express, and three American Dream Winners, which were sponsored by PepsiCo Foodservice.

Under the direction of Alyssa Prince, who is senior director of community relations for the NRA, these awards pay homage to those who have shown unwavering commitment to their communities, as well as to those who have persevered through challenges hard to imagine.

Few would dispute that the evening’s highlight was the acceptance speech from 89-year-old Leah Chase of Dooky Chase Restaurant in New Orleans, who took home the American Dream Award. Clearly speaking from her heart and sending a message of love and inclusion, Chase charmed attendees and received a thunderous ovation to boot. “Diversity is what we all should be about. We all need to work together. You’re not going to agree with everyone, but you have to be able to talk. We have to talk and have to get along.”

Active in the civil rights movement, Chase began her career in 1941 as a waitress and now is known worldwide as the “Queen of Creole Cuisine.”

Chase’s fellow Faces of Diversity American Dream Award winners were Jorge Levy of Desperados Mexican restaurant in Dallas and Bahjat Shariff of the Panera Bread/Howley Bread Group in Cumberland, Rhode Island.

Levy, who started working at age 7 to help his family survive after the death of his father, came to the U.S. at age 16 from Mexico. He learned English and worked in restaurants before joining the military. After his discharge, he opened Desperados, which is now in its 36th year.

Shariff left war-torn Lebanon at the age of 18 to make his way in the United States. After working his way up the chain at KFC, he took an ownership position at Howley Bread Group, a Panera franchisee.

This year's Restaurant Neighbor Award winners were Aramark Corp., the Philadelphia-based contract foodservice company, in the large business category; New Orleans' Taste Buds Management in the mid-sized category; and Damariscotta, Maine-based King Eider's Pub in the small-business category. The Cornerstone Humanitarian Award went to the late Noel Cunningham and his wife, Tammy, owners of Strings restaurant in Denver. Each recipient received a $5,000 contribution to support his or her charitable initiatives.

The Cunninghams were recognized for their humanitarian efforts in aiding the impoverished people of Ethiopia. Noel Cunningham died in 2011; Tammy Cunningham accepted the award on the couple's behalf.

"His legacy is that he saw a bigger picture than himself and felt responsibility for that bigger picture," Tammy Cunningham said of her husband.

Words of inspiration to be sure and ones we could all take back to our own communities.