The National Restaurant Association honored three restaurant entrepreneurs with the 2012 Faces of Diversity American Dream awards during a gala dinner at its Public Affairs Conference in Washington, D.C. last night.

The award recognizes those who have achieved the American Dream of entrepreneurship in the restaurant industry. In addition to the award, a $2,500 scholarship was given to a student in their honor.

“The winners of our 2012 Faces of Diversity American Dream awards truly embody the entrepreneurial spirit that represents our industry,” says Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association. “The restaurant industry is one of the most diverse industries in the United States that provides opportunities for individuals of all backgrounds to realize their dreams of business ownership through hard work and dedication. We are proud to celebrate these restaurateurs’ achievements.”

The National Restaurant Association, in partnership with PepsiCo Foodservice, created the Faces of Diversity awards program in 2007. This year’s American Dream Award winners are:

Jorge Levy, Desperados Mexican Restaurant, Dallas: Originally from Mexico, Levy began working at age 7 to help his family following the death of his father. When he was 16, his family moved to America. Levy learned English and worked in restaurants to help support his family.

After a life-changing experience in the military, Levy pursued his dream of opening a restaurant of his own. The restaurant, now in its 36th year of continual operation, is a fixture on the Dallas restaurant scene and in the Dallas community. Levy continually gives back to the country and city he loves. Read more.

Bahjat Shariff, Panera Bread/Howley Bread Group, Cumberland, Rhode Island: When he was 18, Bahjat Shariff left his family and a war-torn Lebanon to come to America. 

Sharifftook a part time job at KFC–a decision that would change his life. He stayed at KFC for 10 years, working his way up from part-time cook to market manager. Shariff’s career continued at several national chains, and resulted in his present ownership position at the Howley Bread Group, the fourth highest volume Panera Bread franchise. Read more.

Leah Chase, Dooky Chase Restaurant, New Orleans: Known as the “Queen of Creole Cuisine,” Leah Chase has been on the frontlines of the Civil Rights movement, a pioneer of Creole cooking, and a longtime promoter of African American art.

Growing up in a segregated New Orleans, Chase learned about the restaurant business from the ground up. After marrying in 1945, Chase began working for her husband’s family’s restaurant, eventually converting the menu to reflect her Creole roots. At 89 years old, Chase is still running the kitchen of Dooky Chase Restaurant. Read more

For more information about the Faces of Diversity awards program and the 2012 winners, visit

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