NRA to award 2009 American Dream winners; cites triumphs over tragedy

NRA to award 2009 American Dream winners; cites triumphs over tragedy

On their way to achieving the American Dream, Ben and Virginia Ali, Amy Igloi Matsuno and Siraj Virani passed through war-torn countries, survived race riots or endured personal tragedies.

In recognition of their spirit and determination, these restaurateurs will receive the American Dream Award as part of the 2009 Faces of Diversity Awards program. The program was founded by the National Restaurant Association [3] and PepsiCo Foodservice three years ago to celebrate the restaurant industry’s diversity and the ability of its members to overcome obstacles and find success.

Twelve finalists will be honored along with the American Dream Award recipients. In addition, Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald’s Corp. [4] will receive the Inspiration Dream Award, which is given to a company that has exhibited leadership and vision as an advocate of diversity and inclusion. The awards will be presented during the NRA’s Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show in Chicago on May 17.

“Our industry contains a remarkable number of diverse, inspiring individuals who truly represent the entrepreneurial spirit that drives the restaurant business, and we are privileged to honor three of them with our 2009 Faces of Diversity award,” said Dawn Sweeney, president and chief executive of the NRA. “We are also recognizing one restaurant company, which illustrates that diversity and inclusion are important ingredients in the recipe for running a successful business.”

The winners, who represent a cross section of the industry, from a single-unit, family operation to one of the largest chains in the country, demonstrate how diverse the industry is, Sweeney said.

“That diversity is key to what makes our industry great,” she added.

Here are the stories of this year’s American Dream winners:

Ben and Virginia Ali, owners of Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington, D.C.

“My parents are the epitome of the American Dream,” said Nazim Ali, the son of Ben and Virginia Ali, owners of Ben’s Chili Bowl [5] in Washington, D.C. Nazim and his brothers grew up in their parents’ restaurant on U Street in the Shaw neighborhood at the heart of Washington’s black community.

Ben Ali was born in Trinidad and came to the United States when he was 18. He attended five universities in nine years, when a fall down an elevator shaft broke his back and ended his goal of becoming a dentist. He found a job at a place called Ann’s Hot Dogs and began to craft an idea for his own restaurant.

A week before Ben Ali married Virginia they opened Ben’s Chili Bowl. The long, narrow diner had once been a pool hall, but it has since been designated a Washington landmark.

Over the past 50 years, Ben’s Chili Bowl has become a landmark of its own. It was a hangout for such entertainers and celebrities as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Redd Fox, Bessie Smith, Miles Davis, Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole, Dick Gregory, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bill Cosby. President Barack Obama stopped by for a chili dog a few weeks before his inauguration.

After the assassination of King in 1968 sparked rioting in the city, Ben’s was one of the few businesses to remain open. In the late 1980s, construction on the city’s Metro Green Line turned U Street into a 60-foot hole. The Alis survived, staying open with just two employees and feeding the construction workers of the subway line.

Contributors to the community, the Alis have been inducted into the D.C. Hall of Fame, and the restaurant has received the Gallo of Sonoma “America’s Classics” restaurant award from the James Beard Foundation.

Amy Igloi Matsuno, owner of Amy’s on the Bay in Port Orchard, Wash.

“This is an honor, and it makes my parents proud, and that means more to me than anything else,” Matsuno said of the American Dream award.

Matsuno’s parents adopted her when she was 3 years old, rescuing her from an orphanage. She was born in Korea, and her parents died when she was a baby. In the orphanage she suffered a high fever that caused her to lose much of her hearing. But with hearing aids and speech therapy, Matsuno excelled in school and sports as she grew up in Seattle.

While attending the University of Washington, she became engaged to Grant Matsuno, a corporate chef. The two decided to open their own restaurant. At that point, Amy Matsuno’s only restaurant experience had been as a waitress while going to school. The couple signed a lease on a vacant restaurant located on the Bremerton and Sinclair inlet in Port Orchard. In the past three years, the Matsunos have turned the location into a successful steak and seafood restaurant.

“The recession has not touched us at all,” Matsuno said. “I am so grateful to my employees. It’s really a team effort here.”

Siraj Virani, Dunkin’ Donuts franchisee in the Chicago area

“If I reflect on my journey, it has been a difficult one, but in the end everything pays off,” said Virani, who was born in what is now known as Bangladesh.

When the Indo-Pakistani war broke out in 1971, Virani and his father stayed behind in their country while his mother and four siblings went to Pakistan. A few months later, Virani decided to join them. To get there he traveled by boat, by camel and by foot—sometimes in disguises—across a war zone. It took him five months to reach his family.

Virani won a scholarship to study in the United States when he was 19. He waited tables while he studied to be an accountant. He earned finance degrees and a master’s degree in business and landed a job with a pharmaceutical company. But after he was laid off, Virani started looking for a business of his own. After a partnership in an ice cream store failed, he bought a Dunkin’ Donuts [6] store.

Virani now has 13 units in the Chicago area and supplies baked goods for another 18 Dunkin’ Donuts stores.

“This award means a lot to me,” Virani said. “This is a country of opportunity and freedom. If you do everything right, it will get you on the path of success.”

Inspiration Award, McDonald’s Corp., Oak Brook, Ill.

The world’s largest hamburger chain, with more than 32,000 restaurants in 100 countries, has long touted its inclusive environment. The company has been recognized by several publications among the “Best Places to Work” for African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and people with disabilities.

In announcing the award, the NRA noted that more than half of McDonald’s [4] leaders, directors, senior directors, managers and restaurant managers are women and minorities. About 43 percent of its franchisees are women and minorities.

The McDonald’s systems supports five employee business networks for blacks, Hispanics, Asians, women, and gay and lesbian alliances. The company offers a diversity education curriculum as well as career development coursework for women and minorities.— [email protected] [7]