Advocacy, mentoring, social responsibility, giving back: These days, it is likely that your restaurant meal comes with a serving of at least one of these good works on the side.
And no group of individuals personifies the spirit of hospitality that is ingrained in the restaurant industry than the board of directors of the National Restaurant Association. Nearly 70 members sit on the governing organization that runs the industry trade association and lobbying group. They hail from 42 states. Two of the members are from Rhode Island.
This is a striking example of how our stateâ€™s restaurant industry is respected nationwide. The Ocean State has had at least one member on the national board for decades, predating the restaurant boom of the mid-1990s.
Brian Casey, owner of The Oak Hill Tavern and The Company Picnic Co. in North Kingstown, took the chair held for many years by the noted wine expert and personality Len Panaggio of Newport. Then at the beginning of this year, the board named Bahjat Shariff, senior vice president of operations of Howley Bread Group, the franchisee of Panera Bread in Rhode Island as well as parts of Massachusetts and Connecticut.
Shariff is one of the driving forces behind the success of Howley and Panera. He opened the first Panera bakery/cafĂ© in the state in 2000 in Cranston. Now the company operates 28 locations employing more than 1,300 in the three-state region. The newest Rhode Island cafĂ© recently opened in Lincoln.
He first achieved national attention nearly two years ago when he was awarded the associationâ€™s Faces of Diversity award. Then Dale Venturini, president of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association, itself a longstanding member of the national restaurant group, tossed Shariffâ€™s hat into the ring. He was named to the board in January and will serve two three-year terms.
Shariff says the opportunity to serve on the board is both exciting and humbling. â€śI am truly honored,â€ť he said. â€śI started in the restaurant business as a cook at age 18 making biscuits in a KFC in Azusa, Calif. I am looking forward to sharing best practices and exchanging fresh, exciting ideas!â€ť
Shariff is as eager to share the Rhode Island story of success in the restaurant industry with the national board as he is about swapping those ideas.