The 2023 Georgia Restaurant Association Crystal of Excellence (GRACE) Awards winners were announced Thursday, Nov. 30 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.
15th Annual Grace Awards Winners Announced – Food & Beverage Magazine
The GRACE Awards are peer-nominated, and winners are selected by the GRACE Academy made up of past honorees, the GRA Board of Directors and GRA Advisory Board. GRACE winners are presented with crystal works of art created by renowned local artist Hans Godo Fräbel. Also presented at the event was the 2023 GRA Chairman’s Award to Georgia Restaurant Association’s President + CEO Karen Bremer, CAE.
2023 GRACE Awards Winners:
- Lifetime Achievement – Robby Kukler
- With an impressive career spanning nearly four decades, Kukler’s experience is rooted in strategically building and growing Fifth Group Restaurants (FGR), an Atlanta-based company with numerous casual fine-dining concepts. His expertise spans new business development, culture building and company-wide operations. Kukler currently serves as an advisor at the eponymous Kukler Restaurant Advisory (KRA), utilizing his experience and pragmatic approach to guide restaurateurs in setting performance goals. Over the past 30 years, Kukler has worked alongside his business partners to expand FGR to include 14 locations, both company-owned and independently licensed restaurants. Kukler’s track record for growing successful restaurant concepts has earned him various industry honors and recognition, including being awarded Most Influential Leaders in 2022 by Georgia Trend Magazine and Most-Admired CEO by Atlanta Business Chronicle in 2018. Kukler is a member and active supporter of local professional and philanthropic organizations. He currently serves on the board of directors for Food Well Alliance and NaanStop and is an advisory committee member for Full Course. He formerly served as chair of the board of directors for the Atlanta Community Food Bank and has partnered with the organization on many occasions to mobilize community engagement initiatives. As a leader in the hospitality industry, Kukler works diligently to cultivate an employee-centric culture that acknowledges employee contributions and offers growth opportunities. His motto is “Sustained Effort Wins,” and he reinforces that spirit of resilience when creating systems of support and accountability.
- Restaurateur of the Year – EPIC Restaurant
- After an impressive career in hospitality spanning several decades, Chef Jamie Keating and his wife Melissa Keating opened EPIC on the banks of the Chattahoochee to bring “Epicurean” cuisine to Uptown Columbus while maintaining a high level of customer service and creating a welcoming environment. For the past nine consecutive years, EPIC has been a recipient of the Four Diamond AAA Award and the only restaurant outside of Atlanta to receive this distinction. In 2023, EPIC also received the Distinguished Restaurants of North America (DiRoNA) Dining Award. For the past three years, Jamie Keating and his team have been invited to cater the Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta. In addition to operating a successful restaurant and catering business for the past 13 years, the EPIC team supports numerous organizations including Animal SOS, the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, Pediatric Brain Cancer, Children’s Miracle Network, Alzheimer’s Association, Wounded Warrior Project, Habitat for Humanity and local schools. At EPIC, guests will always feel welcomed, loved, comfortable and valued.
- Restaurateur Rookie of the Year – MAD Hospitality
- In just the past two years, MAD Hospitality founder Preston Snyder has grown the MAD Hospitality portfolio into seven different concepts including Mad Taco, Hart and Crown Tavern, The Dining Room, The Patisserie on Main, The Buggy Works Event Hall and Betty Gene’s. Because MAD Hospitality believes that a career in hospitality should be rewarding, all full-time employees are offered paid vacation and PTO, 100% company-paid employee medical, dental and vision insurance and 401k with a match. To support its community, MAD Hospitality sponsors the Morgan County High School Culinary program and contributes to Madison-Morgan Conservancy, the High Museum, Madison Morgan Cultural Center, Georgia College and State University, Georgia State University and many more. Snyder and his team are committed to developing unique concepts, custom tailored to a smaller, exurban market, which are complimentary to the historic, adaptive reuse developments of historic Madison, Georgia.
- Hospitality Hero of the Year – Café Intermezzo
- Inspired by the traditional kaffeehaus after a visit to Germany over 43 years ago, Brian and Page Olson opened the first Café Intermezzo in the Brookwood Hills neighborhood of Atlanta as a place to stop, relax and unburden from daily responsibilities. In addition to providing decades of exceptional service, Café Intermezzo supports numerous charities and causes. In 2020 Café Intermezzo joined a partnership with US Foods, NCR, Bulldog Movers and Westrock to provide over 55,000 pounds of healthy meals to families and frontline workers in hospitality. They have an ongoing partnership with the Eye Believe Foundation, which serves meals to the homeless in north metro Atlanta, and the Brewable Foundation, a coffee shop in Alpharetta that employs young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Annual monetary donations include The United Nations World Food Program, Feeding America, World Central Kitchen, Atlanta Community Foodbank, Giving Kitchen, City of Refuge, North Fulton Community Charities Food Bank and more. In 2023 alone, Café Intermezzo participated in in-kind giving to over 100 community projects and charities.
- Industry Partner of the Year – United Distributors
- Founded in 1940 by the Hertz and Kugelman families as the Fulton Distribution Company in Atlanta, United Distributors is on a mission to provide the highest levels of service, education and salesmanship. Over the past few decades, United has made a staggering 12 acquisitions throughout Georgia, providing broad statewide distribution coverage for its spirit and wine brands, and partnering with the Coors Brewing Company, Miller Brewing, and Heineken. Today, United is the largest beverage alcohol wholesaler in both Georgia and Alabama. As a proud fourth-generation family-owned company, chairman and CEO Doug Hertz is dedicated to making local communities better places to work, play and live. United supports several philanthropic organizations including Habitat for Humanity, Camp Twin Lakes, Atlanta Community Food Bank, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Woodruff Arts Center and Morehouse College to name a few.
- People’s Choice Awards
- The People’s Choice Awards feature four award categories: All awards were nominated and voted on by the Georgia restaurant community (guests, employees, suppliers and vendors).
- Favorite Neighborhood Hangout – Taqueria Tsunami, Fork U Concepts
- Favorite Born-and-Raised Beverage – Monday Night Brewing
- Favorite Eatertainment Experience – The Painted Pin and The Painted Duck, Painted Hospitality
- Uniquely Georgia Restaurant – Local Three Kitchen & Bar, Unsukay
- Restaurant Manager of the Year – Brian Steiper
- This year’s Restaurant Manager of the Year Brian Steiper never expected to pursue a career in the hospitality industry. After beginning his career as a server, Steiper worked his way up into management at Buckhead Life Group where one of his mentors, Pano Karatassos, gave him a greater love and appreciation for the hospitality industry. After leading his team through the challenges of COVID-19, Brian took a leap of faith and joined David Abes and Dash Hospitality to grow his vision of a restaurant focused on community and the customer experience. Brian attributes much of his success to Abes, who encouraged him to take the leap into hospitality management 10 years ago and continues to remind him to always put others first. To Steiper, the most meaningful part of his job is seeing the happiness in guests’ eyes when he provides them with an unforgettable dining experience, whether it is a small gesture or a milestone event.
- Restaurant Employee of the Year – Matt Bryant
- For 2023 Restaurant Employee of the Year Matt Bryant, creating special, memorable moments with guests is everything. His hospitality career began at Six Flag Over Georgia when he was 15. Today, he is a front-of-house manager at Sweet Auburn BBQ, where he has spent the past 10 years learning how to effectively run a restaurant with guidance from mentors Charles Fricke and Cam Floyd, who encouraged his growth, personally and professionally. Although he manages the front of house, Bryant also is a prolific cook, winning the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation Cookoff in 2022. Bryant attributes his success to years of hard work, problem-solving skills and unwavering support from his team and family who have helped him turn his dreams into a reality.
- Georgia ProStart Teacher of the Year – Chef James Bryant
- When Georgia ProStart Teacher of the Year James Bryant was at the beginning of his career, he was told “Students don’t care what you know until they know that you care,” a phrase that still inspires him 28 years later as a culinary instructor at Berkmar High School. For Bryant, the most rewarding part of teaching is the relationships you build with students and watching them realize their full potential after joining the ProStart program, for which he tirelessly advocates. Earlier this year, James led the Berkmar Culinary Team to win first place at the Georgia ProStart Invitational; just a few months later, his team secured 8th in the nation at the National ProStart Invitational in Washington, DC. When he is not in the classroom, Bryant travels around the country to learn from other ProStart educators and become the best possible mentor for his students.
- Georgia ProStart Student of the Year – Haja Kabba
- The 2023 Georgia ProStart Student of the Year Haja Kabba has demonstrated exceptional culinary and academic skills as a student at Benjamin Banneker High School. Her love of food is inspired by her West African background where food is an essential part of community and a source of connectivity. When Kabba joined ProStart, she was empowered to express creativity and gain real-world experience from her culinary mentors chef G and chef Simone Byron, who have shown her the value of charisma, passion and hard work. In her free time, Kabba also is an entrepreneur, operating a small smoothie business that she plans to expand into a full-service restaurant concept one day. Her best advice to new students? Don’t be afraid to add your own creative spin to spice up a dish and always listen to your instructors.
- Hall of Fame – Tony Conway
- After leaving the hotel industry to start Legendary Events in 1997, Tony Conway has been a force to be reckoned with in the events industry. Over the past three decades, Legendary Events has designed, catered and produced thousands of national and international events—becoming one of the most sought-after event planning companies in the Southeast. In 2018, Conway published “Tony Conway | Legendary Events,” a fine art photography book filled with cuisine, humor and design inspiration from the many events he produced with his team for a star-studded list of clients. Throughout his career, Conway has contributed to numerous publications such as Cosmopolitan, Delta SKY magazine, InStyle Weddings, Atlanta magazine and more. Recently, he was featured on the Steve Harvey Show and in an Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) TV special. Conway has served as an honoree patron chair for The Ronald McDonald House Gala, chair for the American Cancer Society’s “Cattle Baron’s Ball” and UNICEF’s “Designs of Hope.” He also has served on the boards of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Alliance Theatre, Leadership Atlanta, The Atlanta Community Food Bank, Central Atlanta Progress, UNICEF and many others.
- Hall of Fame – Anna Hsu
- As the founder and former owner of Hsu’s Gourmet and Pacific Rim Bistro, Anna Hsu was instrumental in establishing Atlanta’s restaurant community in the early 1990s, when she joined forces with now GRA President + CEO Karen Bremer to oppose a proposed tax targeting downtown restaurants. The effort was a success and launched Hsu into the lifelong pursuit of community advocacy. Coming from a family of restaurateurs and chefs, hospitality management has always been in her blood. She is a founding member of the GRA, having served on the board of the Atlanta Convention & Visitor’s Bureau (ACVB) and as past chair of the Midtown Alliance Restaurant Council. After the success of her downtown restaurants, Hsu and her husband Raymond opened AZN Asian Cuisine in Naples, Florida. Among her many accolades, Ashe has received the GRA Taste of Asia Distinguished Service Award in 2008, the ACVB 2000 Member of the Year Award, the Concierge Society of Atlanta 2001 Affiliate Member-of-the-Year Award, and the GRACE Restaurateur of the Year Award in 2008. In 2022, Hsu was inducted into the 23rd Atlanta Hospitality Hall of Fame by the ACVB. Nothing makes her happier than serving others. “When the customers compliment our food and service, that gives me the drive to continue every day.”
- Hall of Fame – Ray Schoenbaum
- Renowned restaurant industry veteran Ray Schoenbaum founded Marietta-based Ray’s Restaurants, LLC in 1984, after selling his Shoney’s and Wendy’s franchises. Today, there are three locations: Ray’s on the River, Ray’s in the City and Ray’s at Killer Creek. Each restaurant features an award-winning menu with an emphasis on fresh fish flown in daily from the Atlantic and Pacific, house-cut chops, prime steaks and extensive wine offerings from around the world. Even after decades of success, Schoenbaum acknowledges his humble beginnings as a busboy and dishwasher at just 13 years old. “I believe in taking care of the guests first, and maybe they’ll let me make a little bit of money if I take good enough care of them,” says Schoenbaum. “Consistency is the most important thing you’ve got.” During COVID-19, Ray’s on the River partnered with the Chattahoochee River Keeper to help preserve and improve the shoreline. One of Ray’s greatest achievements is the support he gives his team. Earlier this year, Schoenbaum made headlines when he gifted an employee of almost 40 years a brand-new car upon retirement.
About the GRA
The GRA’s mission is to serve as the voice for Georgia’s Restaurants in Advocacy, Education and Awareness. The GRA is sanctioned by the National Restaurant Association (NRA) to operate Georgia’s only not-for-profit representing the state’s foodservice industry. From large chains to start-ups, the GRA helps make Georgia a better place for restaurants to do business and helps make restaurants better for Georgia. For more information, visit garestaurants.org.
About the GRACE Awards
The Georgia Restaurant Association Crystal of Excellence Awards (GRACE) is the annual black-tie gala event recognizing excellence in Georgia’s Restaurant Industry. The GRACE Awards stands for the Georgia Restaurant Association Crystal of Excellence Awards. The Awards Gala is an annual event honoring Georgia’s restaurant industry. The GRACE Awards are peer-nominated and honor the top finalists and recipients in the following categories: Lifetime Achievement, Chairman’s Award, Restaurateur of the Year, Restaurateur Rookie of the Year, Industry Partner of the Year, Hospitality Hero of the Year, Restaurant Manager of the Year, Restaurant Employee of the Year, ProStart® Teacher and Student of the Year, the GRA Hall of Fame and the People’s Choice Awards. All winners will be announced and honored at the event and are presented with crystal works of art created by renowned local artist Hans-Godo Frabel.