Monday, May 21, 2007

Strands of industry DNA

In Phase 1 of his immigration, Atour Eyvazian kept himself alive by scraping snow off the Iranian mountainside and eating anything green he could scavenge from the frozen ground. The grass diet kept him from losing more than 40 lbs. as he clawed his way up and across the mountains for 20 hours each day. His motivation was hardly the love of adventure that drives people up Mount Everest. Iran’s fundamentalist thugs were chasing him, eager to pull him back to his possible death. And he wanted to get to the America.

The 19-year-old evaded the Revolutionary Guard—only to be nabbed on the other side of the mountains by the Turkish police. This is a bit of conjecture, but they weren’t hung up on that Miranda thing back in 1984. Eyvazian had to bribe them with $200 his mother had sewn into his pair of 501 jeans. He was already dressing the part of an American. And now he was a step closer to becoming one.

Eventually he would get there. And just as he’d suspected, there was a great opportunity awaiting him—as a janitor in a Jack in the Box.

Today, some 23 years later, Eyvazian is still with the West Coast chain. Indeed, he now owns 10 franchises in Sacramento. The distance he traveled can’t be measured in mere miles.

In any other industry, people would nudge one another and point to him as he moved through a crowd. Here, beyond a doubt, was a person with a story to recount in hushed whispers. But such tales are as common as forks in the restaurant business. It’s a unique but uncelebrated distinction of the business.

And now a bunch of those stories are being told, out loud and for thunderous applause. The National Restaurant Association has instituted a new program called the Faces of Diversity Awards, recognizing industry members like Eyvazian. He was the inaugural winner of the American Dream prize.

But his selection couldn’t have been a slam-dunk. In announcing the winners during its convention here, the NRA provided the stories of 48 finalists for the Faces of Diversity honors. Whole movie studios could be built around the collection of accounts, with enough riveting scripts to keep audiences enrapt for decades. Like Klara Cvitanovich, the owner of Drago’s Seafood Restaurant in Metairie, La. As a girl in Yugoslavia, she watched the Nazis burn her father’s business. They were succeeded by Tito’s Communists, who jailed him. Decades later, after a life of poverty, she came to the United States with her new husband, Drago, and eventually settled in the New Orleans area, opening up a restaurant that’s now a pillar of the local dining scene.

Or Joe Machicote of Compass Group, a familiar figure to anyone who attends the industry’s human-resources-focused conferences. Lesser known is his rise from difficult circumstances in Harlem and the Bronx, with ugly instances of prejudice mixed in along the way.

Or Koshy Chacko, who grew up in a mud hut in India, leaving that bleak situation in his teens to scavenge for food in the streets. But a stint as a soldier taught him how to type, and that was the springboard to eventually getting his Ph. D. in world economics. Yet when he came to the United States, the only job he could land was in a deli. Now he owns a humming restaurant in the northern suburbs of New York City, called the Fair Deal Café. Its stated niche is serving good food for an affordable price to average people.

Remember, there are 48 accounts of that sort. And this is Year One of the program.

By the standards of anyone but a trophy-shop owner, our industry gives out enough awards to make even the un-cynical wonder what’s left to celebrate. But this program is an extremely welcome addition. Indeed, it’s overdue.

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