June 29, 2023

Leaders prove restaurants provide opportunities to advance, and lift others

NRAEF honors industry standouts for contributions to business, employees, community
This year’s Restaurants Advance Leadership Award winners are, from left, Sue Petersen, Carl Sobocinski, Mike Hickey, and Lakisha Hunter.

This year’s Restaurants Advance Leadership Award winners are, from left, Sue Petersen, Carl Sobocinski, Mike Hickey, and Lakisha Hunter.

The National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation honored four industry leaders for their commitment to equity, advancement, and opportunity for others who are building careers in foodservice and hospitality.

The 2023 Restaurants Advance Leadership Awards, held during the Association’s annual Public Affairs Conference in Washington, D.C., celebrated Chicago chef and culinary instructor Lakisha “Chef K” Hunter, South Carolina restaurateur Carl Sobocinski, Noodles & Company DEI executive vice president Sue Petersen, and Ecolab’s Mike Hickey, who won the Thad and Alice Eure Ambassador of Hospitality award. The awards, sponsored by American Express, Ecolab, and PepsiCo, recognized the honorees’ stories of perseverance, dedication to their respective communities, and their tireless work in promoting diversity, equity and inclusion. In addition, each winner received $10,000 to support a charity of their choice.

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

Rising above the ordinary

Chef K, a former gang member who became a successful industry entrepreneur, teacher, and mentor, received the first ever My Journey Award. Today, Chef K is the owner of The Jerk Spot LLC,  a pastor at her local church and runs a youth training program called Rise Above the Ordinary.

“I grew up in underserved communities, where there were a lot of drugs and gang violence,” she said. “I’m that girl who came from Englewood, who was that flower in the crack of the sidewalk that was able to blossom. My culinary arts teacher challenged me to change my life or stay with my gang. I started using my culinary skills to make money. Now it’s my calling, my passion. We’re here to inspire, to make a difference. I haven’t even scratched the surface yet of where I see Rise Above the Ordinary going. It’s bigger than me.”

Sobocinski, president of Table 301 Restaurant Group in Greenville, S.C., received this year’s Community Leadership Award for his advocacy work benefitting the industry’s businesses and philanthropic communities.

“I’m a guy who likes to be moving all of the time, and the restaurant business is always moving,” he said. “It’s always changing and fast moving. That’s the part I fell in love with. Relationships are huge and evolve into community and community evolves into family. Having been here [in Greenville] for 30 years, I’ve developed countless friendships and relationships, and it’s what motivates and drives me every day, to leave a legacy, leave this community in a better way than I found it, and prepare the next generation to take things to the next level.”

Petersen, Noodles & Company’s executive vice president of Inclusion, Diversity, and People, received this year’s Diversity Leadership Award for the company’s exceptional leadership in championing DEI. During her tenure, Noodles has been recognized for its commitment to DEI and has been named to Forbes magazine’s Best Places to Work list for Diversity.

“When I think about what we’re trying to accomplish here, it’s truly about bringing our mission and values to life,” she said. “Our goal is to always nourish and inspire our team members, guests, and communities we serve. Early on, we identified where we had opportunity to elevate more women into leadership roles and bring talent that’s more diverse into our restaurants. In my opinion, you shouldn’t do I&D work as a brand differentiator. We should collectively and collaboratively work on it and become an industry that’s known for inclusion, diversity, and belonging.”

Uplifting communities and changing lives

Hickey, retired president of Global Institutional Business at Ecolab, received the Ambassador of Hospitality award for his lifetime of leadership and support in uplifting communities and transforming lives. The NRAEF also named a $10,000 scholarship in his honor. As an Association board member and former Foundation chair, Hickey helped advance the NRAEF’s military and ProStart programs, and created a partnership connecting ProStart students with the annual Taste of the NFL events.

“This is an amazing honor, one I will cherish for the rest of my life,” he said. “I like to call myself a second-generation foodservice brat. My dad, when he got out of the Marine Corps., had an opportunity to get into foodservice. As his career progressed, we all—my brothers and sisters—ended up working in the industry. My first job, at 14, was as a dishwasher. I was very fortunate. I had great mentors, great people who showed me great leadership skills. At some point that transitions to you becoming the person showing others how to lead and develop them, give opportunities so they can achieve their dreams, goals, and objectives. Early on, we became involved in ProStart. We knew it was something that could make a difference, bring young people into the industry. I’ve been so lucky to have had great teams working with me, and to have been part of other great teams, working for other people. It’s been a fantastic 35 years.”