Restaurant Industry Honors Leaders for Work to Improve Their Communities, Advance Diversity and Opportunity

The Restaurants Advance Leadership Awards celebrate the role restaurants play in the communities where they operate. Watch the winner videos here.

WASHINGTON, June 21, 2023 /PRNewswire/ — Four restaurant industry leaders were recognized Tuesday, June 20, with the 2023 Restaurants Advance Leadership Awards, honoring the industry’s best-of-the-best for their work to build equity, advancement, and opportunity in all corners of the restaurant, foodservice, and hospitality industry. This year’s awards included a new celebration of an inspiring individual and leader who has pursued their personal dream of building a future in the restaurant, foodservice, and hospitality industry.

Presented by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF) and sponsored by American Express, Ecolab, and PepsiCo, the awards highlight each honoree’s story of perseverance, dedication to the communities where they live and operate, and their tireless work to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. This year’s My Journey, Community Leadership, and Diversity Leadership award winners received $10,000 to support a charity of their choice.

“It’s an honor to recognize individuals who are raising the bar in the industry,” said Rob Gifford, president of the NRAEF. “The winners of this year’s Restaurants Advance Leadership Awards are extraordinary leaders in business and in their communities. They are changing lives and inspiring all of us to work harder in advancing restaurants as a space for opportunity and unlimited potential.”

The My Journey Award presented by Ecolab went to Chef Lakisha Hunter, a Chicago native who survived being a gang foot soldier in Chicago’s inner city and went on to find a purpose in cooking and success as a restaurant business owner, youth mentor, and community leader. Today, she is a pastor in her local church, the owner of That Jerk Spot LLC, and runs a culinary-focused youth training program called Rise Above the Ordinary. Watch her video here.

“Chef Lakisha Hunter’s vision to help youth see the opportunity in the restaurant and hospitality industry and be part of it is making a real difference in her Chicago community. Ecolab is excited to recognize her story as one of perseverance and hope for the next generation of culinary leaders,” said Greg Cook, executive vice president and general manager of global institutional at Ecolab.  

The Community Leadership Award presented by American Express went to Carl Sobocinski, founder and owner of Table 301 Restaurant Group in Greenville, South Carolina. From his work to incubate and grow new local restaurants with funds and hands-on training to his work with Mill Village Ministries, which provides fresh food boxes to low-income Greenville families, Carl is a dedicated advocate for the hospitality industry’s business and philanthropic communities. Watch his video here.

Carl Sobocinski shows what it means to be fully invested in the community where he and his restaurants operate,” said Kirk Madsen, director of client management at American Express. “More than making Greenville a great place to live, work, and dine, he believes passionately in sharing his blessings and extending opportunity to everyone he comes across.”

The Diversity Leadership Award was presented by PepsiCo to Sue Petersen, executive vice president of Inclusion, Diversity, and People at Noodles & Company in recognition of the company’s exceptional leadership in championing diversity, equity, and inclusion. During Petersen’s tenure at Noodles, the company has been recognized numerous times for its commitment to its people, including being named to the Forbes Best Places list for Diversity. Watch her video here.

“Steered by Sue Petersen, Noodles & Company’s diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives have raised the bar across the entire restaurant industry,” said Sumi DeBenedittis, senior director of industry relations at PepsiCo. “From the executive team to the kitchen, Sue’s leadership shows us what’s truly possible when building a culture of belonging and acceptance.”  

To round out the evening, the NRAEF presented the Thad and Alice Eure Ambassador of Hospitality Award to Michael Hickey, retired president of Global Institutional Business at Ecolab, for his exceptional lifetime leadership and unparalleled support in uplifting communities and transforming lives. To recognize Hickey’s contributions, the NRAEF named a $10,000 scholarship in his honor. During his time on the board of directors for the National Restaurant Association and as chair of the NRAEF board, Hickey advanced the NRAEF’s military and ProStart programs, creating a partnership to connect ProStart students to annual Taste of the NFL events. Watch his video here.

“You’d be hard pressed to find someone as passionate about our industry, and willing to get in the trenches beside you to build a better for future for everyone it touches, than Mike Hickey,” said Rob Gifford. “The son of a restaurateur and university foodservice director, Mike has invested his time, treasure, and talent into the restaurant industry, and we are all better because of it.”

Learn more about this year’s Restaurants Advance Leadership Award winners at

About the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF): As the supporting philanthropic foundation of the National Restaurant Association, the NRAEF’s charitable mission includes 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/HOPES – Partnering with community based organizations to provide people 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; and the Restaurant & Hospitality Leadership Center (RHLC) – accredited apprenticeship programs designed to build the careers of service professionals. For more information on the NRAEF, visit ChooseRestaurants.orgClick here for the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s 2022 Annual Impact Report.

SOURCE National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation

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