Reza Akbari embraced Prince George, and Saturday night the community rewarded him for his commitment to the community.
Akbari, owner of Shiraz Cafe and Restaurant, was recognized as New Entrepreneur of the Year in the 2013 Prince George chamber of Commerce Business Excellence Awards.
"It was great, emotional," said Akbari, who opened the doors to the city's first Persian restaurant Dec. 22, 2012.
The University of Northern B.C. master's candidate said his parents were surprised when he told them he wanted to open the business in Prince George.
"They were asking me, 'why don't you do it Vancouver?'" he recalled, but Akbari said he has come to feel a sense of belonging in Prince George and wanted to share his culture with the city.
"I always believed and saw it in a practical manner that the understanding of any other culture the best way is the food and cuisine of that culture," he said.
At Shiraz, Akbari is trying to make that culture part of the local fabric, training local chefs and cooks to cook authentic Persian cuisine. Ultimately, he would also like to run the restaurant using 100 per cent locally sourced ingredients.
Akbari attributes the success of Shiraz to all of Prince George, from the customers who patronize the restaurant, to other business owners and UNBC faculty staff who have offered advice. "I personally am proud I started this challenge with the community I feel I have a belonging to."
Rising to a challenge and creating a new space for local businesses and entrepreneurs like Akbari to grow nabbed Shauna Harper of LiveWorkPG the Business Person of the Year award.
Harper called the experience humbling and said she was shocked to win the prize, but also excited about what's on the horizon for the start-up community and beyond in Prince George.
"Right now it's all entrepreneurs, which is good, but I believe it's more than entrepreneurs," said Harper. "It's about an entrepreneurial spirit in this community, which means that people can work for other companies and other organization and still have the entrepreneurial spirit and that part, to me, is really what's going to drive Prince George and create a community feeling - even more so than it is."
A groovy crowd of 320 filled the Civic Centre for Saturday's gala event with a 1960s theme. Comedian host Gery Schubert went heavy on the Austin Powers schtick and grabbed laughs and audience participation.
"The awards themselves were just fabulous," said chamber CEO Christie Ray. "We were able to recognize a phenomenal business community."
Before heading to the stage to accept the Community Impact award on behalf of Child Development Centre of Prince George and District, Darrell Roze also wasn't expecting to win.
"Going in to the event I was thinking with all the information that's come out about the [Canadian Cancer Society] I was kind of suspecting they were going to take it this year," said the organization's executive director. "We're pretty delighted to have the award, to be recognized, especially considering the other organizations we were up against."
Now in its 47th year, the Child Development Centre provides serives to one in five of the region's preschool-aged children, said Roze. But despite those statistics, the centre's reach isn't very well known.
"And it's the ones that really need us that have the understanding of what we provide. So I think this is just a recognition that we provide a number of critical services out in the community," he said.
Full list of winners:
n New Entrepreneur of the Year: Reza Akbari, Shiraz Caf and Restaurant
n Business Person of the Year: Shauna Harper, LiveWorkPG
n Corporate Citizen of the Year: Pacific Western Brewing Co.
n Micro Business of the Year: Van Horlick's Trophy and Gift House
n Service Excellence: Integris Credit Union
n Environmental Leadership: University of Northern B.C.
n Community Impact: Child Development Centre of Prince George and District
n Outstanding Corporate Culture: Telus
n Tourism Impact: The Exploration Place
n Business of the Year: Integris Credit Union