As Titus Perkins came onstage at the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s Industry Awards Gala, there was barely a dry eye in the house.

Perkins, executive kitchen manager at Ralph Brennan’s Restaurant Group in New Orleans, was emotional himself as he accepted a Faces of Diversity award. Starting as a dishwasher as a teen after a brush with the law, Perkins now holds the keys to nearly every restaurant that Ralph Brennan owns, and he’s proud of how far he has been able to come.

“I’d like to thank everyone who gave me this opportunity, who gave me a chance,” Perkins said. “The restaurant industry is the industry of opportunity. Someone took a chance on me and I returned it by taking a chance on others.”

The NRAEF awards recognize members of the restaurant industry who go above and beyond to support their communities or overcame adversity to achieve their dreams.

“This year’s honorees prove that our industry is developing and supporting a strong, committed and diverse workforce in communities across the nation,” said Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association and NRAEF.

Sponsored by Pepsico Foodservice, the Faces of Diversity Award was also presented to Taylor Hoang, owner of Pho Cyclo Cafes in Seattle, and Archna Becker, owner of Bhojanic in Atlanta.

“To be recognized is humbling and an honor,” Hoang said. “The industry is amazing, and I am blessed to be a part of it. It is open to all and doesn’t discriminate – it allows you to pursue your dreams.”

Also presented at the gala were American Express’ Restaurant Neighbor Awards for restaurants that demonstrate an unwavering commitment to their communities. The winners are Firehouse Subs, Gregg’s Restaurants in Rhode Island, and Carr’s Restaurant in Mayfield, Ky.

“We’re blessed to have fantastic customers,” said Don Fox, CEO of Firehouse Subs. “Every time we open a new restaurant we get excited that we are able to save more lives.”

Harald Herrmann, senior vice president, special projects, Darden Specialty Restaurant Group, was recognized as Cornerstone Humanitarian of the year for his Round It Up America concept, founded in 2009.

“I’m honored to be a part of such an outstanding group of individuals,” said Hermann. “I learned to serve others beyond the dining room and found the values that helped shape my life.”

Finally, with a well-deserved standing ovation, Ted Fowler, a pillar of the restaurant community, took the stage to receive the Thad & Alice Eure Ambassador of Hospitality Award, sponsored by Ecolab.

“This award is a real honor to me,” said Fowler. “I thank God for this journey and this industry.”