14th Annual GRACE Awards Winners Announced

Staff Report

Friday, September 30th, 2022

The winners of the 2022 Georgia Restaurant Association Crystal of Excellence (GRACE) Awards were announced Tuesday, Sept. 27, at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. The GRACE Awards Gala is the Georgia Restaurant Association’s (GRA) annual black-tie event honoring Georgia’s restaurant industry. 

The GRACE Awards are peer-nominated and winners are selected by the GRACE Academy, made up of past honorees. GRACE winners are presented with crystal works of art created by renowned local artist Hans Godo Fräbel. Also presented at the event was the 2022 GRA Chairman’s Award to Georgia State Senate President Pro Tempore Butch Miller.

2022 GRACE Awards Winners:

Lifetime Achievement – Dr. Debra F. Cannon, Ph.D. 

Dr. Debra F. Cannon, Ph.D. is the director of the Cecil B. Day School of Hospitality in the Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University. On the faculty since 1991, Dr. Cannon has been the school’s director since 2001. Under her leadership, the school has expanded to highly ranked undergraduate and graduate programs and is one of the few programs in the nation dually accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) and the Accreditation Commission of Programs in Hospitality Administration (ACPHA).  

Dr. Cannon’s areas of specialization include human resources and quality service management. She has extensive industry experience including property and corporate-level positions with Hyatt Hotels and The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. She co-authored the textbook, “Training and Development for the Hospitality Industry,”serves on several academic editorial boards, and is a frequent contributor to industry publications. 

Dr. Cannon is on the board of directors of the Georgia Restaurant Association, a member of the executive committee and board of directors of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, and an advisory board member for the Georgia Hotel and Lodging Association. She also serves on the board of directors for the International Society of Hospitality Consultants and is a member of Les Dames Escoffier International – Atlanta Chapter. She has been awarded the Distinguished Service Award by the Georgia Restaurant Association, is a 2013 inductee into the Atlanta Hospitality Hall of Fame, and has received the Georgia Women in Lodging Leader of the Year Award. 

Restaurateur of the Year – Southern Proper Hospitality

Southern Proper Hospitality was awarded Restaurateur of the Year in recognition of its service to guests and the Georgia community. Southern Proper Hospitality has 17 locations throughout Georgia and the Southeast. Chris Hadermann is the co-founder and partner of Southern Proper Hospitality. Hadermann attributes the success of his hospitality group to being one of the best-in-class workplaces and having staff who are passionate about working in the hospitality industry.

Restaurateur Rookie of the Year – Mukja Korean Fried Chicken

Sean Chang is the owner of Mukja Korean Fried Chicken in Atlanta and this year’s Restaurateur Rooke of the Year. Chang’s restaurant is a small, unique concept located in the heart of Midtown Atlanta. His restaurant allows him to meet and socialize with all walks of life. He also strives to become a neighborhood staple in the community and seeks work-life balance for employees of the restaurant industry.

Hospitality Hero of the Year- Sterling Hospitality 

Sterling Hospitality is 2022’s Hospitality Hero of the Year through the world-class hospitality provided to its clients, vendors, employees, guests, and the neighborhoods and communities they serve. John C. Metz, executive chef, CEO, and co-founder of Sterling Hospitality credits his long-term staff as the "secret sauce" that makes each of his restaurants and cafés unique and different. Metz looks for opportunities to support non-profit organizations which are important to them.

Industry Partner of the year - Melissa Libby & Associates 

Melissa Libby & Associates has worked closely with entrepreneurs, small business owners, marketing directors, consultants, chefs, and inventors for over 25 years to effectively tell their story through strategic planning, content creation, community outreach, media relations, social media marketing, crisis management and more. They were awarded “Industry Partner of the Year” for their longevity in the industry and commitment to supporting the restaurant community. Their team also supports many non-profit organizations focused on food insecurity and hunger alleviation.

Restaurant Manager of the Year Jose “Pepe” Fundora

2022’s Restaurant Manager of the Year attributes his love of hospitality to his parents while growing up in the restaurant business. Having worked in the industry for 24 years, he is the co-owner of his family’s restaurant as well as a certified sommelier. He believes that nothing is impossible through hard work and by taking risks, you will see outcomes. Such is true with serving guests with grace and a smile as they choose to return time and again to dine and celebrate special occasions. 

Restaurant Employee of the Year – Katherine “Cristina Najera

The 2022 Restaurant Employee of the Year is deeply passionate about training and the development of others. “People” are Najera’s favorite part of her job whether it is interacting with guests in making them feel at home or coaching employees and watching them grow within the company. She is celebrating her eighth work anniversary this year at the restaurant where she started her first job. She is an asset to company leadership with her holistic, solution-minded work ethic and is beloved by guests and team members alike with her commitment to great customer service and unfailing support of team growth.

Georgia ProStart Teacher of the Year – Chef Elissa Oliver

This year’s Georgia ProStartâ Teacher of the Year defines her motivation as being the students who choose to take her class and the excitement of watching what they will create. Chef Elissa Oliver’s colleagues describe her as having a heart of gold who has never turned down an opportunity to involve her and her students in volunteer events, competitions, and collaborative industry events. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, she found numerous ways to keep her students engaged in cooking during virtual learning through an interactive YouTube channel and even provided food to students in need. Her biggest hope for her students when they leave her class is that they are successful, proactive, and happy in what they choose for their future. 

Georgia ProStartâ Student of the Year – Jennifer Pacheco

The 2022 Georgia ProStartâ Student of the Year, Jennifer Pacheco has demonstrated exceptional culinary skills and served as team captain for her school’s management team during the Georgia 2022 ProStart competition. She and her team came in first place and were invited to compete at the National ProStart Invitational back in May. Pacheco will be returning to her ProStart school as an intern and plans to apply to the Culinary Institute of America after graduation. She hopes to own her own gourmet restaurant one day and bring guests jobs through her food just as others have done for her. 

Hall of Fame – Ellen Hartman

A public and media relations veteran, Ellen Hartman has served Georgia’s restaurant industry community for more than 45 years. Representing many well-known national, state, and local brands, her expertise in consumer and business-to-business communications, social responsibility, media relations, and crisis management have helped clients navigate thorny matters such as COVID-19 management, legal and labor challenges, gender and diversity issues, workplace violence, foodborne illnesses, environmental disasters, product recalls and finance. 

Hall of Fame – John Harof

John Harof began in the restaurant industry in 1975. Originally from Long Island, New York, he moved to Atlanta in 1984 to work with Liberty House Restaurant Group before joining Ruth’s Chris Steak House in 1993. Serving as chief information officer, he has deep expertise in many aspects of restaurant technology, including reservation and POS Systems, credit card processing, systems security, digital kitchen, and dining room check systems. He is described by his colleagues as “a consummate professional, a tireless industry defender, and an unsurpassed mentor.”Harof says that his main motivation for his career selection was the excitement of the daily work, working with people makes the job enjoyable and if you are lucky enough to find a career you enjoy, you will be successful.

Hall of Fame – Mario Antonio “Tony” Fundora

The GRACE Academy is honored to include Tony Fundora in the GRACE Awards Hall of Fame posthumously. Fundora left a legacy of hospitality and community service in the Atlanta metro food scene. Originally immigrating from Cuba in 1962, he opened numerous restaurants with the love of his life and wife Maria at his side. In 1998, they built their dream restaurant Casa Nuova Italian Restaurant in Alpharetta. Fundora spread his love for food by sharing it with the community. His passion for fresh food inspired him to grow his own fruits, vegetables, and flowers on his farm in North Fulton, which he loved sharing with everyone that came to the restaurant. He would say “I am not better than anyone else as they are no better than me. And everyone in this world deserves respect and kindness.”