Ben Ali, a Trinidad native who migrated to the U.S. when he was 18 years old, worked his way through several jobs before landing one in the restaurant industry at Ann's Hot Dogs. Armed with that experience, he partnered with Virginia Rollins, his soon-to-be wife, to open Ben's Chili Bowl in 1958 in Washington, D.C. The restaurant has seen many tough times in its 50-year history, including race riots, drug wars, and subway line construction that slashed Ben's Chili Bowl's business for almost five years. Despite all its hardships, the store now attracts visitors from all ends of the globe—and even some notable ones from down the street; President Barack Obama ate at the restaurant a few days before his inauguration.
Ali's story epitomizes what the National Restaurant Association (NRA) Faces of Diversity awards, created in partnership with PepsiCo Foodservice, are all about: diverse individuals who have fought through adversity to succeed in the restaurant industry. He is one of this year's American Dream Award winners, announced today by the NRA.
“We are of course one of the most diverse industries in America, both from ownership, employment, and our customers,” says Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the NRA. “We really pride ourselves on the fact that we represent and serve probably the most diverse populations in this country, and the awards are a great way for us to really put a face on the incredible stories of our industry.”
In addition to the American Dream Award, which recognizes diverse individuals who have realized the American dream through hard work and determination, the NRA also names a restaurant company the year's Inspiration Award winner, in honor of its commitment to the advocacy of diversity and inclusion.
Three of the four award-winners selected are quick-serve restaurants—Ben's Chili Bowl and Dunkin' Donuts owners make up two of the three American Dream Award winners. McDonald's was selected as the NRA's Inspiration Award winner.
“The quick-service industry is very well represented and is being recognized in that way,” Sweeney says.
The complete winner's list, selected by a panel of seven judges from about 100 submissions, is as follows:
American Dream Award Winners
Ben and Virginia Ali, Ben's Chili Bowl, Washington, D.C—The Alis were selected for their restaurant's successes through rough patches, including drug wars and racial tension.
Amy Matsuno, Amy's on the Bay, Port Orchard, Washington—After contracting a fever in a Korean orphanage and suffering hearing loss, Matsuno was adopted by a U.S. couple. At the age of 25, she opened her own restaurant and now owns Amy's on the Bay with her husband, Grant.
Siraj Virani, Dunkin' Donuts, Chicago—Virani found safety from a war-torn Bengal in Karachi, Pakistan, where he later won a scholarship to travel to the U.S. Eventually, after being laid off by a pharmaceutical company, Virani looked into franchising opportunities. He now owns 13 Dunkin' Donuts.
Inspiration Award Winner
McDonald's Corporation—McDonald's has consistently been recognized as a “Best Place to Work” for African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and people with disabilities. The McDonald’s system supports employee business networks for African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, women, and gay/lesbian/allies and offers a diversity education curriculum, as well as career development coursework for women and minorities. In addition, more than half of McDonald’s leaders, directors/senior directors, managers, and restaurant managers are women and people of color, and 43 percent of franchisees are women and minorities.
Although restaurants employ one of the most diverse work forces of any industry, Sweeney says restaurant companies and the NRA must continue to further the cause.
“There's always more that the industry can do,” she says. “We have a responsibility to continue to innovate and look for new and aggressive ways that we can promote and award organizations and individuals who really, truly represent the spirit of inclusion and diversity.”
She emphasizes that it's not just the right thing to do—it can benefit the bottom line, as well.
“The more that we can do to celebrate diversity and inclusion in the industry, the better we'll be as an employer of choice.”