Around The Winner's Circle

Recipients of the first Food Fanatics Awards share their secrets

Success is sweet, but even better? Winning an award for it. Enter the Food Fanatics Awards, honoring the foodservice champions who often go unrecognized. 

Some 1,000 entries vied for six categories: Best Bite, Big Heart, Culinary Genius, Hero, Epic Turn-Around and Top Crew. Once judges picked the winners in each category, the public got the chance to decide among those who would be named the Ultimate Food Fanatic. 

A few of the winners share what it took to nab the prize.


Big Heart and the Ultimate Food Fanatic Award

Based in Newport Beach, California, with locations in 15 states

Kids and pizza are a natural fit. Unfortunately, sometimes kids and bullying also go hand-in-hand. So when Zpizza chain set out to create a community partnership program, it found inspiration close to home, says Marketing Director Sally George. 

Nice Zslice, a school-based kindness campaign that runs during National Bullying Prevention month in October, has been successful because it intersects with the needs of schools, students and the company’s brand. 


Make it easy: When partnering with a school, civic group or nonprofit, have materials ready like online registration forms, social media links, a website with detailed information and a dedicated point of contact. Zpizza also provides a guide with talking points, classroom posters and certificates.

"They have to believe in your product."

-Marketing Director Sally George of ZPizza

“If it’s extra work for the school, it’s not something they’re going to want to get involved in,” says George. It needs to be “free and turn-key.”

Work with a good fit: Pizza fits into the everyday lives of the participants and the “prize” (a free slice of pizza and a certificate of acknowledgment for acts of kindness) is appropriate to the audience. “There’s a lot of competition for their attention,” says George. “They have to believe in your product.”

Give the tie-in a twist: Zpizza chose to recognize positive behavior, not preach about the consequences of bullying. “We believe kindness is contagious,” George says. 

Build those blocks: Don’t rush to replicate the success somewhere else. Rather than expanding to other civic or nonprofit groups, Zpizza is focused on going “deeper and wider in schools,” says George. Zpizza and schools are no longer an October one-off, but a year-round relationship, including other sponsored events.

Alex Pozantidis

Epic Turnaround Award

Zoe Restaurant, East Amherst, New York

Owner Alex Pozantidis has watched disaster come along quickly (in a fast-moving kitchen fire that closed down one of his restaurants-) and approach slowly (during the harshly contracting economy that shuttered a second restaurant). In his current setup, he feels better equipped to keep the restaurant going even when challenges come around again.


Read the fine print: Pozantidis would have spent more on attorney fees to delve deeply into the leases and contracts. When it was too late, his investment in the businesses and options in getting out of them weren’t as solid as he’d thought. “I would have definitely made sure we’d be better protected all around,” Pozantidis says.

Avoid borrowing money: “When business isn’t good, it seems like there’s nothing to do other than go back to the bank,” he says. But you can’t borrow your way out of a financial crisis. 

Never forget it’s not personal: Tough decisions must be made, such as cutting back on staff. Don’t let personal feelings cloud your judgment, he says.

Roll up your sleeves: “A lot of people want the luxury of being an absentee owner,” Pozantidis says. But you need to jump in and help out.

Seek an expert: “Have someone come in that will break down your business and say, ‘Your food costs are at this percent, or your supply costs are too high. Why are you doing it this way?’ It’s too easy to lose perspective on your business model when you’re deep down in it,” he says.

Obsess about your inventory: “We do inventory every single day,” Pozantidis says. “We constantly stay on top of our product, so there are no excessive orders and no waste.”

Willy Carroll

Top Crew Award

Tahoe Mountain Club, Truckee, California

Conventional wisdom says that being close friends with your staff isn’t the best management approach. But conventional isn’t the norm for Executive Chef Willy Carroll. Take the working conditions at the mountain resort during ski season. The staff faces operational hurdles unique to an alpine location, such as loading supplies on ski lifts and sleds, often in blizzard conditions. All that happens at dawn before the lifts open for guests. Then there’s the rush to break down the kitchen at night before the lifts close.  

The hard work wouldn’t happen, Carroll says, if the vibe wasn’t respectful, responsive and often flat-out fun. “I treat my crew like I’m their best friend,” Carroll says .

"I treat my crew like I'm their best friend."

-Executive Chef Willy Carroll of Tahoe Mountain Club


Respect personal time: The workplace is remote and seasonal with housing that’s not family friendly. So Carroll honors vacation requests, even during busy times.

Keep the mood light: Even in the weeds, the staff is always listening to music and fun. “I’ve worked in too many kitchens where there was screaming and yelling, and I don’t want that,” he says. “It’s the opposite of motivation.”

Stay professional: Know the difference between a relaxed environment and a lax one. The staff is dedicated to helping each other, covering shifts and carpooling. The workspace is clean and organized. “We make sure they have everything they need to do their job,” he says. “This is a place for people who are self-motivated and have a positive attitude.”

Ensure parity: “We give raises no matter what the season,” Carroll says, because they make the staff feel valued and motivated to return. The raises are across the board. Giving a bump to only a few people would be too hard to keep secret, he says.  

Kristin Eddy is an award-winning food writer based in California’s Napa Valley.