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WRA’s State Finalists for NRA Awards
Congratulations to Wisconsin’s finalists competing for national awards

Liberty Hall Conference Center, PJD Investments, Inc., Wisconsin Hospitality Group and Marsh Shapiro were honored as Wisconsin finalists for the National Restaurant Association Restaurant Neighbor Award. Doris and Alice Ng from GingeRootz in Appleton were honored as Wisconsin’s finalist for the Faces of Diversity American Dream award. Justin Johnson, executive chef at Harvest Market at the Watertown Regional Medical Center was honored as Wisconsin’s finalist for the Operator Innovations Award in the Sustainability category.

Restaurant Neighbor Awards

The Restaurant Neighbor Award recognizes foodservice businesses throughout the U.S. for their commitment to community service and innovative community projects in four categories (Small Business, Medium to Large Business, National Chain, and Cornerstone Humanitarian). Each participating state restaurant association selects winners in their respective states that compete with winners from other states for the national award.

The National Restaurant Association and Restaurant Neighbor Award founding partner American Express developed the award to raise awareness about the restaurant industry’s contributions in local communities across the country and to inspire other restaurant owners and operators to showcase their enormous contributions in their communities.

Congratulations to the state finalists from Wisconsin who will go on to compete for these national awards.

Liberty Hall Conference Center, located in Kimberly (owner Mike Van Asten), was honored in the small business category.

When longtime banquet and beverage manager, Jim Weiss, lost his life after a tragic accident this summer, his co-workers and friends at Liberty Hall established the James C. Weiss Fellowship at St. Norbert College in his honor. Annually, $7,500-$10,000 will be awarded to a student who best models Jim’s leadership style of steady determination and unwavering commitment in the pursuit of excellence.  Liberty Hall owner, Mike Van Asten, a proud alum of St. Norbert’s delivered a heartfelt eulogy for Weiss, his friend for over 25 years in which he said, “He believed in doing the right thing and doing things right.  His old fashioned work ethic was legendary and he took genuine pride in a job well done.”  Thomas Kunkel, St. Norbert's President wrote, "Mike grieved, of course -- but he also thought hard about how to try to make something positive out of something that was so terribly sad. His solution: Establish an endowed fellowship in Jim's name at St. Norbert College. Thus Jim's good name and great work ethic for Liberty Hall will live on in perpetuity, and in a way that will assist worthy young SNC students for years to come."

PJD Investments, Inc.  dba Toppers Pizza, located in La Crosse and Onalaska (owners Phil and Denise Downing), was honored in the medium business category.

PJD Investments, Inc. owners Phil and Denis Downing have been leading the charge against hunger.  Toppers Pizza and its franchisees have been proud partners of Feeding America.  In 2012, the Downings, along with their store team members, were an inspiration to all franchises and lead the way by fighting hunger in their local community.  Of the 33 Topper Pizza stores at the time, the La Crosse and Onalaska stores run by the Downings finished first and second (respectively) in canned goods raised. Then when Toppers asked stores to volunteer at local food pantries and soup kitchens, team members from La Crosse and Onalaska had some of the highest volunteer hour totals in the company.  The Downings also volunteer in the community by providing in class “pizza demonstrations” to local school children for over ten years.   In the application put together by their employees, Phil and Denise are described as “excellent franchisees and true leaders within the Toppers Pizza Company.”

Wisconsin Hospitality Group dba Pizza Hut and Applebees, based in Wauwatosa, was honored in the National Chain category.

Applebee’s main charitable focus remains on the Childrens Hospital of Wisconsin Health System and during their 13 years supporting this cause, over $1,106,000 has been raised.  The focus for Pizza Hut has been Camp Heartland, a camp for children affected by HIV/AIDS. Since Pizza Hut’s campaign began, $865,000 has been raised.  In addition to those primary campaigns, Applebee’s has celebrated Veteran’s Day since 2008 by serving free meals and offering thanks to vets, active duty servicemen and women and their families.  Pizza Hut has also been a supporter for World Food Programme (WFP) in collaboration with YUM! Brands, helping to feed 90 million people in over 70 countries.  Jeff Stewart, VP & COO of Children's Hospital and Health System Foundation wrote the following about WHG, "Like a good neighbor, you help us create a community that can offer comfort and small reminders that our patients are not alone in their battles.  They have the support of a community, filled with caring, compassionate neighbors."

Marsh Shapiro of Madison was honored as the Cornerstone Humanitarian.

This posthumous nomination by WRA honors Shapiro’s many contributions to the Madison area.  Born and raised in Madison, he was an iconic local figure who juggled two very successful careers – as a broadcaster with WKOW and as the owner/operator of The Nitty Gritty (known as Madison’s Official Birthday Place and home of the famous Gritty burger).  Heartfelt letters of support from Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, UW Athletic Director Barry Alvarez, Second Harvest Foodbank and the Foundation for Madison’s Public Schools accompanied the application and showed the range and depth of his community involvement.  Perhaps his most lasting gift to the city that he loved was the creation of the Marshall the Marshal Fund at American Family Children’s Hospital shortly before his death this winter from brain cancer.  The fund will assist young patients and their families. Mayor Paul Soglin said this about him, "Marsh was the consummate host both on television and in his restaurant.  He had the ability to make people feel more than welcomed, but that the seat next to him was only for them." 

Faces of Diversity Awards

The National Restaurant Association is proud of the industry’s diversity. In partnership with PepsiCo Foodservice, the Faces of Diversity Awards program honors individuals in the restaurant industry who have realized the American Dream through hard work, determination and enterprise.

GingeRootz Asian Grille, located in Appleton (owners Doris and Alice Ng), was honored in the American Dream category.

Sisters Doris and Alice Ng are the proud operators of a popular restaurant in the Fox Valley.  Their motto of persistence and perseverance and subsequent well-deserved success epitomizes the American Dream.  Their parents came to America hoping to provide a better lifestyle and more opportunities for their family, like many immigrants.  With little money and limited English, they borrowed money from friends and family to open a restaurant.  Doris described "Being able to continue my parent’s dream of sharing their love of food is the greatest sense of accomplishment.” In 2004 the sisters continued the family legacy by opening GingeRootz.  Future plans include bottling their own sauces and packaging frozen appetizers and perhaps opening additional locations in the Midwest. They also offer a Culinary Travel program, traveling with customers to foreign countries to learn and experience and appreciate the food. Shanghai China is scheduled for spring of 2013 and Thailand/Singapore/Philippines in the fall. Other interesting projects include Doris Ng's work educating students on the fundamentals of operating a business throug Count Me In, Women's Leadership Exchange and Goldman Sach's 10,000 Small Business Initiative.  At GingeRootz a priority is placed on employee advancement at all levels, with a portion of the restaurant's budget going to education.

Operator Innovations Award

For the Operator Innovations Awards, the National Restaurant Association evaluates innovations from restaurant and foodservice companies, both commercial and non-commercial, then recognizes and celebrates the very best in five categories: Sustainability, Food Safety, Health and Nutrition, Menu Development and Technology.

Justin Johnson, executive chef at Harvest Market at the Watertown Regional Medical Center, was honored in the Sustainability category.

WRA nominated Executive Chef Justin Johnson in the Sustainability category in recognition of his innovative work with Watertown Regional Medical Center. Johnson was hired in April of 2012 to oversee ambitious plans to completely change their foodservice programs. A large garden was added near the hospital’s parking lot, the cafeteria and kitchen are undergoing extensive remodels and Johnson developed a training curriculaum to teach the foodservice staff to think like chefs (The White ToqueChef School).  The produce grown in the garden has found its way onto the dining room’s menus and patients' roomservice meal options.  Patient satisfaction has already increased and there has been a 30% reduction in food costs as a result of phasing out processed, premade foods and centering menus around home-grown vegetables.  All Styrofoam products have been eliminated and very importantly they have been able to push the envelope with menus and entrees as a result of the increasing culinary skill levels of the kitchen staff acquired through the training course. In describing this groundbreaking approach which is influenced by the hospitals philosophy or providing health care, as opposed to sick care, Johnson said, "My approach is to take what we grow here ourselves and create interesting dishes around it...we're going to try to make this a place that people across the country will come to see."  

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