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National Award Winners

Honoring Diversity in Restaurants


The 2014 recipients of the Faces of Diversity American Dream awards represent the diversity and spirit of entreprenuership of the restaurant industry.

Mansour Ghalibaf

Owner/Hotel Northampton
Northampton, Massachusetts


As a young man who had migrated to the U.S. speaking little English, Mansour Ghalibaf was a semester away from a BS in accounting and in love with an American woman when he found out his deportation back to Tehran, Iran was imminent.
“It was 1979 and the Iranian Revolution was going on and the Shah of Iran had recently been toppled,” says Ghalibaf. “The relations between Iran and the U.S. were very bad at the time, and that’s putting it mildly.”
During this period Ghalibaf already had found his way to the hospitality industry. “I worked very hard at menial jobs in restaurants and hotels to pay my tuition. I didn’t have any support from my parents. They were poor,” he says.
Once Ghalibaf learned he was being deported he pursued several avenues, all of which dead-ended — the U.S. Immigration Services, the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s office and the Dean of Students from Southeastern Massachusetts University, where he went to school. Finally, Ghalibaf reached out to a friend who had emigrated from Yugoslavia.
“He told me he knew a good immigration lawyer who could help me,” says Ghalibaf. “So I grabbed some necessities and I went underground for a month. During that time law enforcement took my picture around to all the places where I used to go, asking if anyone knew where I was,” he recalls. “They even went so far as to question my girlfriend’s mother, asking her, ‘what kind of daughter are you raising that she would date an Iranian?”’
For Ghalibaf those thirty days were stressful. “It was a very difficult time for me. I remember I was running from immigration and I had $9 in my wallet and no food in my refrigerator.”

After Ghalibaf was a fugitive for about a month the lawyer was able to get him a visa so he could stay in America. “He really took care of me. He knew I didn’t have any money, but he still helped me, he was a good man,” says Ghalibaf.  “When I asked him how could he get me a visa? He told me: ‘It all depends on who you know.’”
Once Ghalibaf graduated he made some important life decisions: He married his girlfriend and decided despite an accounting degree he found the hospitality industry more alluring.

“Even though I was persistent in becoming an accountant by refusing promotions from my supervisors in the hotel business, I finally gave up due to the excitement of the hospitality business,” he says. “Since then I haven’t had a dull moment.”
For Ghalibaf, 60, the journey since has been rewarding and emblematic of the American Dream, as he has quite literally gone from the dish room to the boardroom.
After eleven years at the Sheraton Tara Hotel in Framingham, where he worked at several posts in food and beverage, Ghalibaf joined the Hotel Northampton in 1990 as controller, where he successfully took the business out of bankruptcy.
Since first joining the historic hotel Ghalibaf has helped grow revenues for the 106-room, luxury boutique hotel from $2 million in annual sales to $7 million. The property, which features two restaurants and two bars, was built in 1927.
“We are located in the middle of five colleges,” says Ghalibaf. “We have always done better every year because we put the money back into the property, which was built in 1927. Our customers notice the hotel is always improving and they keep coming back.”
Ghalibaf, who purchased the hotel with his business partner Tony Murkett in 2006 after serving as its general manager, has been named Restaurateur of the Year by the Massachusetts Restaurant Association; received the Massachusetts Governor’s Leadership Award; been named to the Massachusetts Hospitality Hall of Fame; and received the President’s Award from the Rotary Club.
Still happily married to his college sweetheart, Ghalibaf has two children, a successful career and the respect of his community.
“The American Dream is real. If you work hard, you will get ahead in this country and you can’t find that any other place in the world.”

Jahangir Kabir

District Supervisor/White Castle System, Inc.
Woodside, New York
The restaurant industry has been ‘very, very good’ to Jahangir Kabir. Not only did it give him a hand up when he didn’t speak a word of English and was virtually penniless, but it since has helped him achieve a BBA as well as an MBA, and better still, brought him face-to-face for the first time with his wife, Farida.
“The restaurant industry has given me so much,” says Kabir. “I consider myself a success and nothing I have achieved would have been possible without the help and encouragement of White Castle.”
Kabir, 43, immigrated to the United States from Bangladesh in 1990 with the help of an older brother already here, and soon was hired by White Castle as a cook.
The ninth of ten children, Kabir’s hard work and determination earned him several promotions once he learned English. “Because of not speaking the language I couldn’t work with the customers at first,” he says. 
“But I really worked hard at it by reading newspapers, having a dictionary handy, taking classes, and talking to my nieces and nephews.”
After a mere six months Kabir was able to communicate with customers and soon was virtually fluent in not only the language but also all of the front and back of the house operations at White Castle.
Since the beginning Kabir has emphasized customer service and White Castle management took note, promoting him after only four years to a general manager post.
Kabir credits two individuals at the company for mentoring and helping him excel. “Eugene Miller, who was my first supervisor, gave me a job when I was struggling to find one,” he says. “And Maxine Rawson was my multi-unit manager and I credit her with where I am today. She showed me everything, and gave me a lot of tough love. She had a tremendous impact on me.”
Now as a multi-unit manager himself, responsible for about 200 employees, Kabir is returning the favor in spades.
“I don’t focus on results because my true belief is that if I take care of my people, the results will be on the table.”
And those results are ‘on the table’ as all eight of Kabir’s restaurants received an excellence award from White Castle’s corporate headquarters in 2013. “It really is due to my people,” he says.
Kabir’s number one priority is taking care of his wife and two children followed closely by watching out for his employees but there is a third priority as well: giving back to his community.
His generosity of time and spirit extends to East New York Urban Youth Corps, The East New York Family Day, and The 75th Precinct Community Council Spelling Bee as well as several organizations that benefit those less fortunate in his hometown of Barlekha, Bangladesh. 
Additionally Kabir was recognized with the ‘Outstanding Community Service Award,’ by the Brooklyn District Attorney largely for his efforts to help eradicate prostitution from his community.
Despite Kabir’s jam-packed schedule he still manages to find time to pursue yet another dream: to receive a Doctor of Business Administration from Wilmington University in Delaware. 
Kabir is hoping to finish by 2016 but no later than 2017, and already he has zeroed in on a dissertation topic. “I want to focus on customer satisfaction in the restaurant industry, specifically focusing on quick-service operations and Millennials.”
Admirably, Kabir doesn’t miss any opportunity to pay it forward to the industry that has given him so much, even when it comes to writing his dissertation.

Griselda Barajas

President and chief executive/Griselda’s Catering
Sacramento, California
When Griselda Barajas first started her catering business in 1993 there were plenty of bleak days when she couldn’t meet payroll and had to use credit cards to cover expenses. When things looked especially dire she relied on a secret weapon — blackjack.
“I played blackjack in Lake Tahoe,” says Barajas. “I could make three or four thousand dollars in one night. It was like I had a guardian angel watching over me and I always believed that was because I was doing it for the right reason. I wasn’t doing it to buy a pair of shoes, I was doing it to take care of my employees.”
Barajas, who is 42, says she would never resort to blackjack today if money ever became an issue. “I am really awed by the fact that I did that and could be so gutsy, but I believe in karma and also a woman’s intuition. You have to trust it, and know when to walk away.”
Barajas says she listens to that ‘little voice in her head,’ and so far it hasn’t steered her in the wrong direction.
Born in Mexico City, Barajas immigrated to Houston when she was 12 years old along with her parents and two siblings.
“My dad was already here working for the legendary Ninfa Laurenzo, the godmother of Tex Mex, as a server in one of her restaurants,” says Barajas. Once here, her mother likewise worked at the restaurant, and Barajas and her siblings spent many hours at “our home away from home.”
Barajas’s time in the restaurant launched her life-long love affair with a business she still can’t get enough of. Her business philosophy is simple: “It’s never been about me, it’s whatever my customer wants.”
Today Barajas owns and operates Griselda’s World Café at the Capitol, which is located inside the State Capitol, and Griselda’s Catering Service located in the heart of Sacramento.

“When I first started in my 20s I didn’t know about accounting, leases, or government regulations. The whole process of starting a restaurant was very intimidating. Being naïve helped me out. I didn’t even know there was a glass ceiling,” she says. 
“I think it’s important to be honest with yourself because there is a lot to know, but you have to be humble enough to ask other people for input.”
As a divorced mother of four young children Barajas relies on her family to help when work keeps her away, sometimes till the wee hours.
“It is important to have a strong support system in this business,” she says. “In my case it is my mother and my siblings. They really support me. They don’t judge me. They don’t demand of me because they know I am working hard, and whatever I do, I do for my family.”

Aside from her myriad responsibilities at home and work, Barajas is very active in her community, forging strong relationships with elected officials, business and community leaders, and trade union representatives.
She has been a member of the Sacramento Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and PAC since 1992; serves on the boards for the Metro Chamber of Commerce; Slavic Chamber of Commerce; California Restaurant Association; California Restaurant Association PAC; American Leadership Forum; and the Cristo Rey High School.
Barajas also has been honored with the Small Business Advocate of the Year from the California Chamber of Commerce, as well as Business Woman of the Year from the Sacramento and California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Despite all her good fortune Barajas never forgets why she has succeeded in the restaurant business. “The day I considered myself a success was the day I realized that I believed in myself, but even before that I always looked forward to coming to work,” she says. “I always tell people, and especially my kids, ‘whatever you do, do with love.”’