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Profile of a 2014 RNA Winner

Profile of a 2014 RNA Winner

Meet Panda Restaurant Group, the 2014 winner of the Large Business Restaurant Neighbor Award.

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Giving Back to Their Communities

Embracing Charitable Initiatives


The 2014 recipients of the Restaurant Neighbor awards have made a tremendous impact on their local communities.

Cohn Restaurant Group

San Diego, California


Lesley and David Cohn put their stake in the San Diego restaurant scene more than 30 years ago and the ripple effects throughout the community have been felt ever since.

Widely known for their philanthropic endeavors the couple has touched many lives through their company, which is one of the most celebrated restaurant groups in California.

“As restaurateurs we have the opportunity to be solicited by so many worthy causes because people don’t always know where to go for support,” says Lesley Cohn, co-owner, who likes to refer to her title as ‘the queen of everything.’

“But people do tend to approach the restaurants where they eat.”

One of the premiere organizations supported by the Cohn Restaurant Group is the Garfield High School Foundation, which is an alternative continuation school for students considered high risk for drop out.

The Cohns co-founded the foundation in 1996 with other prominent players in the hospitality industry and since have helped raise more than $300,000 for the Culinary Arts Program. The school teaches kids a skill set across a broad spectrum of disciplines preparing them for a future in foodservice.

The company annually hosts a Thanksgiving-inspired luncheon where students are given the opportunity to prepare meals under the guidance of the restaurant group’s chefs.

“Everyone comes to our signature restaurant in Balboa Park for this luncheon. I have judges that come, and a city attorney that comes. This is a sold out event,” says Lesley Cohn.

“They are served by the kids in the front of the house, and fed by kids in the heart of the house.”

Not only have Lesley and David Cohn been active with the school but staff members have tirelessly devoted their time as well, racking up more than 4,000 hours over the program’s last 16 years.

To date the program has graduated more than 2,000 students, some of which have landed jobs at the 19 restaurants in the Cohn Restaurant Group.

“We have hired quite a few of the kids and they have worked out great,” says Lesley Cohn. “Some of them started with us as dishwashers and have moved up. We encourage upward mobility.”

Lesley Cohn, who heads up the company’s charitable giving, spends countless hours filtering requests that find their way to her desk via letters, website or telephone.

“After 30 years I have a system in place that works really well. I organize the requests by month and I keep a log of what I have done, and when I have done it.”

Working with some 350 non-profits is plenty to keep track of, but Lesley Cohn relishes the task.

“When I am working in the restaurants I hear people saying, ‘thank you for what you do for public radio, or Doctors Without Borders,’” she says. “It’s those acclimations that make you realize how important the work we do is.”

One of the causes the Cohns have supported is Big Brothers Big Sisters of San Diego County and, more specifically, its launch of the Amachi Program, which supports children with parents in prison.

“Without intervention, 70% of the children who have an incarcerated parent will also end up in prison,” says Lesley Cohn. “Nothing is going to be 100% successful but if you chip away at a problem you can make some big dents.”

The company, which employs about 1,500 people, also participates annually in the Taste of the NFL, an organization that supports America’s homeless with its Super Bowl eve’s ‘Party With A Purpose.’ The event brings together 32 top chefs, representing NFL cities. Jonathan Hale, executive chef for The Prado at Balboa Park, participates on behalf of the Cohn Restaurant Group and San Diego.

Some of the other organizations receiving regular donations include San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park Foundation, Promises 2 Kids, City of Hope, March of Dimes, Make a Wish, Meals on Wheels, Project Wildlife, The Old Globe, San Diego Unified School District, ProStart, Epilepsy Foundation and UNICEF.

“You can only do so much to make an impact, but a little can go a long way to help so many of these organizations,” says Lesley Cohn. “And I certainly can attest it is a lot better to give than receive.”

Clearly, Lesley and David Cohn are in a position to know.


Matt Haley

Founder, President, Chief Executive/The Matt Haley Companies
Rehoboth Beach, Delaware


With a laser focus on “leveraging the center of the plate to do good in the world,” Matt Haley has been able to catapult his life to a place few could even imagine.

As the founder, president and chief executive of Delaware-based Matt Haley companies, Haley oversees one of the fastest growing restaurant groups in the world. For the indomitable Haley that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The 53-year old, who exudes more energy than Halley’s Comet, brings an unrivaled passion to his humanitarian causes that literally circle the globe.

Through his spirit of giving Haley has funded rescue missions for kidnapped children in Nepal; raised money for an education initiative in Nicaragua to empower low-income children and adults; participated in Washington, D.C.’s Covenant House Sleep Out to raise awareness and money for homeless youth across the United States; and supported more local causes than seems humanly possible.

“This organization does not exist in our community, but rather for and because of our community, both local and global,” says Haley.

On paper Haley’s life reads like a Hollywood script but it’s his back-story that has served as the catalyst for his life of service.

Following years of substance abuse and the accompanying emotions of intense guilt and shame, Haley was incarcerated for three years after a conviction on drug charges.

“I got arrested and I got locked up,” says Haley. “I had no options but ultimately got sober because I was surrounded by people who cared.”

Those people include his mother, who pleaded with his lawyers and the judge not to let Haley out of jail on a technicality “because it would kill him,” and his therapist, Jan Weng, who he credits with saving his life.

“These are the real heroes,” asserts Haley.

Once sober Haley discovered a safe harbor through cooking. He landed minimum wage jobs and forged ahead, one day at a time, developing his culinary skills on the journey.

Haley followed his dreams and made his way to the beaches of Delaware, where he opened Bluecoast Seafood Grill in 2001, which within three weeks of opening was doing 300 covers nightly.

“It was awesome, but crazy. We were doing 16 hour days.”

Today Haley’s restaurant portfolio, which flies under the SoDel Concepts umbrella, features an array of acclaimed operations including Matt’s Fish Camp, Fish On, Lupo di Mare, Bluecoast Seafood Grill, Northeast Seafood Kitchen, Catch 54 and Papa Grande’s.

He’s also started Plate Catering, Highwater Management, a foodservice management company as well as Haley/Kammerer Consulting, a consulting firm and a concessions division, which operates at several area sports complexes.

“In my world everything begins with the arts and the arts include the culinary arts,” says the chef, who is a member of the James Beard Foundation.

“With food you can make connection which stretches around the world. Working in a kitchen creates a bond and an experience that is hard to find in other environments.”

Haley’s generosity with time, resources and brainpower extends well beyond a nine to five existence.

Dedicated to causes that aid minority communities, Haley is president of the board of directors for La Esperanza, a cooperative designed to provide aid, and education to the Latino community in Southern Delaware. To that end Haley’s newest restaurant, Papa Grande’s, donates 25 percent of the net profits to this community and he also supports a music school for Hispanic children.

He has brought attention to the plight of the Mexican migrant through his documentary film, “Hands of Harvest.” His production company SoDel Films has produced other films including “Motorcycle Chang Pa,” which chronicles the lives of the nomadic Chang pa tribe through the Himalayan deserts.

Closer to home Haley receives love and encouragement from an extensive support system which includes his 1,000 employees, three siblings, his mom in Alpharetta, Georgia, three daughters in Nepal, Laxmi 15, Leela, 13, and Jyoti 11, and Kaitlee, his significant other.

“She supports everything I believe in,” he says. “But I had to do the work with myself to get to the point where I could be available for a woman like that. I wasn’t emotionally ready.”

That work involves staying sober and helping others in their recovery. Haley, who devotes hundreds of hours a year speaking to inmates, says he knows, “I am always three seconds away from being right back where I was but having a better handle on things has allowed me to expand those three seconds out. I don’t have to live in fear anymore.”

Haley, who has accomplished more than a small army, counts his greatest success 23 years of sobriety.

“If I can be an example for others and come into their hearts, mind or soul, now that’s something to be proud of.

“To know that is a byproduct of how I turned my life around makes me comfortable in the fact that I wouldn’t change a thing.”

View Matt Haley's story


Passport Pizza

Clinton Twp., Michigan

Little did Sue LaTour know what began as a one month effort to help feed 35 displaced refugees of Hurricane Katrina would evolve into a massive hunger relief program, distributing more than 500 pallets of food annually to her Michigan neighbors in need.

LaTour, who is president of 12-unit Passport Pizza, modestly compares her role in this philanthropic program to that of traffic cop.

“I feel like I am directing traffic. I just say yes, and everybody does their part.” And she says yes all the time. In fact LaTour doesn’t know how to turn down a plea for help.

Working out of Passport’s largest unit LaTour gets food deliveries daily from a variety of sources including Costco, Panera Bread, Gordon Food Service, local retailers and donors.

“I can get the food in and out the same day,” she says. “What starts out as garbage becomes a gift.”

Food recipients include hundreds of families, five food pantries, a home for unwed mothers, veterans at the VA hospital, and volunteers for Habitat for Humanity.

LaTour estimates she spends about two hours daily coordinating the program and relies heavily on Passport employees who have embraced the notion of being a force for good. “We are changing the neighborhood one life at a time,” she says.

When the program was in its infancy in 2005 LaTour and her merry band of employees would send out food twice a month to local pantries and churches, much of it emanating from the kitchens of Passport Pizza.

“One of my son’s friends was eating in the pantry in my neighborhood,” she says. “His father had lost his job, and although they were not homeless they didn’t have enough to eat.”

That young man would go on to be class valedictorian and receive a full scholarship to Harvard.

“That really spurred everyone on. We realized we made a difference by helping.”

Based about 30 miles north of Detroit, Passport Pizza employs 75 people, all of whom are involved in the program which turns out  3,000 meals weekly.

“The staff fills their cars with food and drop it off wherever there is a need,” she says. “They have their regular routes. There is no cash involved.

“Everyone who does it, does it because they can see the difference in people. It just makes them feel good to be part of it.”

And it’s not likely to end anytime soon because of the constant reinforcement that what they are doing is changing the lives of others.

“The people who get the food are so appreciative. It does something to you when you see a kid’s face light up because you gave him an apple,” LaTour says. “You really just pinch yourself and say, ‘wow.’”

Additionally Passport Pizza sponsors a meal once a month for East-side Teen Outreach, ETO, a group of 160 endangered kids, Project 9, which is working on changing the worst part of Macomb County and C4 Urban Outreach, an evanelistic street ministry that serves the homeless, poor and addicted in Detroit.

For LaTour, the mother of three sons, the act of giving has become a family affair. Her father, who makes regular food deliveries in his truck, has been deeply touched by the experience.

“It brings tears to his eyes when he pulls up and two little girls come running out and grab his leg, shouting ‘he’s here, he’s here.’”

LaTour’s Passport Pizza partner and husband, Michael Bischoff, is helping her put together a formal plan to become a not for profit, aptly named ‘Feeding The Need,’ and move into permanent quarters.

“We are running out of room,” she says. “Whenever there is a big delivery coming in I tell my accountant to get her paperwork off the table because my food is coming.”

View Passport Pizza's story

Panda Cares

Rosemead, CA

Panda Cares, the charitable arm of 30-year old Panda Restaurant Group, proves time and time again that it does just that. Established in 1999, Panda Cares has donated $41.5 million to non-profit organizations, schools, children’s hospitals and disaster relief.

“Originally a food donation program to help the community at large, Panda Cares evolved into the vehicle to elevate Panda’s commitment to people, specifically to focus on providing food for events that benefit the health and education of underserved children,” says Peggy Cherng, PRG’s co-chair and co-chief executive.

To that end Panda Cares partners with Children’s Miracle Network and ‘The Leader In Me,’ a school program that integrates timeless leadership principles with practical character and life skills.

“We support groups that are aligned with the Panda Cares mission, which is to promote the spirit of giving within the Panda Restaurant Group,” says Andrew Cherng, PRG’s founder and chairman.

With nearly 1,650 restaurants and 25,000 employees in 46 states, PRG involves its employees in all its fundraising activities. “We have a team of 20 Panda Cares representatives, who are associates that, aside from their day-to-day jobs at Panda, help support different regions nationwide where Panda Express restaurants operate,” says Peggy Cherng.

“Our associates are the liaisons between an organization and our local operators, which allows each organization and our volunteer an opportunity to make a personal connection.”

Children’s events, where PRG employees serve Panda meals, range from groups as low as 80 to as high as 5,000. More than 80% of PRG’s team members also participate in the associate giving program, where a portion of their paycheck is donated to their local Children’s Miracle Network Hospital.

Through the company’s in-store donation program, leaving their cash behind, or rounding up their bill at the register also involves guests.

“Our proudest moment comes from the smiles and thanks we receive from those who have been touched by our work. From associates to guests, we take satisfaction in knowing that we are doing our best to serve our community,” says Andrew Cherng.

That spirit of giving is on full display when Panda Cares steps in to aid those affected by natural disasters around the globe. “During natural disasters, Panda Cares shifts focus and collects funds for disaster relief as well as provide food for relief workers and those displaced,” says Peggy Cherng.

From the Myanmar Cyclone and Asian Tsunami to earthquakes in China, Haiti and Japan as well as disasters closer to home —Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina — Panda Cares lives up to its name by matching 100% of dollars raised.

Panda Cares's story